By Genaro C. Armas
The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. —
One of Bucknell center Mike Muscala’s crowning achievements this season took place far from the basketball court.
Never mind that the 6-foot-11 senior is the only player in Division I to average 18 points and 11 rebounds a game, or that he leads the NCAA with 22 double-doubles. Making the dean’s list is pretty impressive, too.
For now, the books can wait.
The 11th-seeded Bison (28-5) are back in the NCAA tournament, opening against sixth-seeded Butler (26-8) on Thursday in Lexington, Ky.
“It’s been pretty tough,” Muscala said about maintaining his 3.3 grade-point average. “But that’s why a lot of us came to Bucknell — to play a high level of basketball” and play at a school with good academics.
With all due respect to the brainy Patriot League program — Muscala’s basketball acumen is what worries most opposing coaches.
“They’ve got a 7-footer in Muscala,” Butler coach Brad Stevens told reporters after the matchup with Bucknell was announced Sunday. “The consensus is he’s a pro.”
And the only Bison player that Stevens individually then named. After all, it’s hard not to notice Muscala (19 points per game) on the floor. Muscala can finish inside with either hand. He can handle the ball. And his rebounding (11.2 per game) has improved each year in Lewisburg, Pa.
But it’s his jumper and mid-range game that seem especially lethal.
Down the stretch of last week’s 64-56 win over Lafayette in the conference final, Muscala hit three big shots after the Leopards had whittled a 12-point deficit to three: A fadeaway to his left. A jump hook. And a long, high-arcing shot after getting pushed out of position low. All under pressure, with fans calling for the big guy to get the ball. All good.
“We’ve done a good job all year of closing out games,” Muscala said. “For the most part, we’ve stayed pretty composed.”
Then there’s Muscala’s defense. The Patriot League’s player of the year and defensive player of the year is Bucknell’s career leader in blocks (2.71 per game).
Muscala’s presence “allows the perimeter guys to pressure. It allows us to really get into people, even though we’re not the most athletic team,” guard Bryson Johnson said.
They do get the results — the Bison allow 57.5 points per game, 14th-best out of Division I’s 347 teams. They’re holding opponents to .378 shooting, seventh-best in the country.
One of Muscala’s biggest games came in Bucknell’s toughest road trip of the year, a 66-64 loss at Missouri. Muscala had 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting, with 14 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
Johnson’s not bad, either. A senior who is averaging 11.1 points, he is the Patriot League’s career leader in 3-point field goals (321).
Senior Joe Willman (10.3 points, 5.9 rebounds) is a pick-and-pop forward who pairs with Muscala in a tough frontcourt. Junior guard Cameron Ayers (12.5 points) is shooting 39 percent from 3-point range, just like Johnson.
Throw in small-school Bucknell’s history of NCAA tournament success (don’t remind Kansas) and it’s easy to see why the Bison have become a chic pick to pull off more upsets this year. Bucknell eliminated the Jayhawks in 2005 in Round 1.
Of course, no team knows how to pull upsets like Butler. The Bulldogs remain mid-major royalty just two years removed from back-to-back trips to the NCAA finals.
“That’s pretty impressive that we’ve had that kind of impression on people,” Johnson said when asked about the comparisons to Butler. “That’s the highest compliment that you can have as a mid-major.”
The Bison’s competitiveness shows up off the court, too. Muscala recalled how a month ago, the seniors, including Willman and Johnson, checked their grades to see who made dean’s list. As it turns out, they all did.
But Muscala exceeded them, anyway. The dual major in business management and Spanish is the Patriot League scholar-athlete of the year award, too.
As usual, Bucknell’s big man came out on top.