By William Bowman
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG -- As his Bucknell basketball team prepared for the new season to start, Dave Paulsen knew one thing for sure and was pretty certain about another.
A month in, with the Bison now in the middle of an extended break for final exams, the fifth-year coach is positive about both.
After facing a brutal stretch of games out of the gate, the Bison are 8-1, the lone blip a three-point loss the day after Thanksgiving at Penn State. So far Bucknell has beaten a team from the Big Ten (Purdue), Colonial (George Mason), WAC (New Mexico State), MAC (Kent State) and Ivy (Columbia, Dartmouth). Bucknell has gotten off the fast start despite playing the 105th toughest schedule in the nation, by far the best in the Patriot League. Top-ranked Indiana has played the 272nd toughest.
"I thought we were going to be pretty good, but I knew we played a really difficult schedule to start, so to be 8-1 right now, we are really thrilled," said Paulsen, who has led the Bison to back-to-back 25-win seasons. "To get through that stretch, playing on the road and against teams that play all different kind of styles, is great."
One of the reasons for the fast start has been the play on the defensive end. With the likes of 1,000-point scorers Mike Muscala and Bryson Johnson, and soon to be 1,000-point scorers Joe Willman and Cameron Ayers, Paulsen and his coaching staff knew offense wasn't going to be the problem.
But with graduation of three-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Bryan Cohen, Paulsen knew work needed to be done on the defensive end. One player was not going to replace Cohen, so collectively the Bison had to get better as a team defensively.
So far, so good.
"Our team defense has been great and that was something we were really concerned about," Paulsen said. "That's been our key since the first day, team defense. We've played a lot of different styles and we've done a pretty darn good job."
Through nine games, the Bison have held opponents to 57.7 points and just 36 percent shooting from the field. Only two teams -- Purdue and Niagara have scored more than 60 points and Bucknell won both of those games. In the first nine games a year ago, with Cohen anchoring the defense, the Bison allowed 61.7 points per game and 39 percent shooting.
"We don't have a one individual lock down defender, but we've emphasized team defense," said Paulsen. "We have a veteran group and they quickly understood how big it is for us to be better, and continue to get better, on defense."
It also hasn't hurt that Muscala, despite playing with a nagging foot injury, has been as good if not better than advertised.
The senior All-Patriot center is having another banner season, averaging career-highs of 18.8 points and 11.4 rebounds. He is second in the nation in double-doubles with six and has two monster games in the last two outings. He had 29 points and a career-high 19 rebounds in a come-from-behind win at Columbia on Saturday and then had 27 points in a win over Kent State on Tuesday night.
Muscala, who has a shot to break the all-time BU scoring mark, has been somewhat limited in practice with the leg injury and did not practice at all the week leading up to the Penn State game, where he still managed 10 points and 12 rebounds.
"Mike has really played at an extremely high level because he practices at a high level," said Paulsen.
In the loss to Penn State, Muscala got off only four shots, something Paulsen said would be addressed. In the two games since he has made 15 of 27 shots (56 percent), but more importantly, the Bison have found ways to get him the ball more consistently, but not force the ball into him.
"There is a fine where we have to play through Mike because it's the right thing to do, but we can't be robotic in that it takes us out of our game trying to get the ball to him," said Paulsen. "Against Kent State we got into a really good flow offensive, a good rhythm and balance and Mike still had 27.
"That's what we need to continue to do."