By Todd Hummel
The Daily Item
The most underrated part of Bucknell University’s run over the past four years had been predicated on defense.
Most of the focus on the loss of last year’s senior class has come on the scoring punch lost by the Bison, but the graduation of Mike Muscala, Bryson Johnson and Joe Willman also affected the way Bucknell would defend teams this season.
With Muscala’s abilities and reputation as a rim protector — the Bison have just four blocked shots in their first nine games this year — and Willman’s rebounding and extra size inside, Bucknell’s backcourt could pressure the ball and the perimeter with the security blanket of the big men inside.
Along with current senior Cameron Ayers, Johnson, primarily a shooter through his first three seasons, earned raves from coach Dave Paulsen by the end of the year for his commitment to the defensive end.
And just nine days ago, Paulsen was less than pleased with his team’s defensive efforts in a home loss to Princeton.
“The Princeton game, we didn’t hit shots and we let that affect us,” Bucknell forward Brian Fitzpatrick said. “I think we got better this week.”
However, as the Bison start their finals break this week, Paulsen couldn’t be more pleased with his team’s effort on the defensive end in two big wins over Kent State and Columbia this week.
“I’d rather learn from a win, I’m not going to lie,” Paulsen said. “This has got to be our mindset, though. Our defense can’t waver because our offense is a work in process.”
In its first game of the week, Bucknell traveled to Kent State to face a team averaging 80 points per game. The Bison held the Golden Flash to a season-low 59 on 37.1 percent shooting.
On Saturday against the Lions, they earned raves from Columbia coach Kyle Smith for their defense as well.
“They do a really good job of defending the defending 3-pointer,” Smith said. “We had some tough looks from behind the arc.”
The Lions entered the game at Sojka Pavilion shooting nearly 43 percent from behind the arc, including Maodo Lo’s gaudy 57.6 percent (19-of-33). Columbia shot just 3-of-16 from behind the 3-point line with Lo missing all four of his attempts. Leading scorer Grant Mullins (13.2 points per game) scored just two points after scoring a career-high 28 points in a win over Army on Tuesday night.
One of the improvements on the defensive end has come from sophomore guard Chris Hass. The least experienced member of the Bison’s rotation entering the season (11 games and 43 minutes as a freshman) has grown more comfortable with his increased role.
“I spent a lot of time learning from Bryson and Cam last year. The biggest thing for me is the defensive end,” Hass said. “When I played last year, I felt like I was lost (on the defensive end) out there. As I play more (this year), I just feel more comfortable at the defensive end with competing you have to do on the defensive end (in college).”
Now the next step for Bucknell over the break is coming up with some new wrinkles in its offense. With almost two weeks between games, Paulsen and his players will use that time to rest and work before a trip to Marist on Dec. 20. Bucknell plays just twice before opening Patriot League play at home on Jan. 2 against American.
“What we have to do right now is a get a couple of days rest for these guys. It’s been a long haul on the road with games we’ve had to play at a high level to win,” Paulsen said. “It’s a time to add a layer our defensive and offensive packages. This is the last uninterrupted time on our schedule where we get to just worry about getting better.”