For The Daily Item
The very last line in the first paragraph in the press release that announced Bucknell’s hiring of Dave Paulsen back in May of 2008 called him a highly sought-after consultant on the principals of the motion offense.
The bulk of the media coverage of the Bison this season has rightly revolved around the standout play of center Mike Muscala.
So I think most fans think of the Bucknell in the terms of offensive abilities, but anybody in attendance Saturday night at Sojka Pavilion, for a 66-51 victory over Lafayette, knows this Bison team can play some defense.
That might be surprising to people since two-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Bryan Cohen graduated, but the loss of Cohen has led to a more team-oriented approach.
“Every team in the (Patriot League) is different, whether they are hunting 3’s in transition or posting it inside,” Bucknell swingman Cameron Ayers said. “(Without Cohen) defense has been more of a team effort this year.”
“We probably spend more time in practice on defense than we have in previous years,” Paulsen added.
It’s certainly something Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon noticed as well.
“You’re not going to win a game shooting 34 percent and seven percent from 3 (1-of-13),” O’Hanlon said after Saturday night’s game. “Even with Cohen gone, they haven’t missed a thing defensively.”
That team defensive effectiveness can be traced to Muscala as a 6-foot-11 presence in the middle and the ability of Paulsen to mix-and-match a variety of on-ball defenders on the perimeter.
“Having that big scary monster behind you, you can funnel everything into him; that’s what makes them so effective,” O’Hanlon said. “(The guards) can push up on everybody. Your only option (on offense) is to try and go around them, but then you run into Muscala.”
Ayers often takes the toughest assignment, but shooting guard Bryson Johnson has improved defensively and the three-headed point guard platoon of Ryan Hill, Ryan Frazier and Stephen Kaspar helps keep a fresh defender on the opposing point guard.
“We will do more switching (on screens) than we’ve done in the past. We have more versatility,” Paulsen said. “Chasing those guys around is exhausting. That’s why it’s so great to be able to rotate Frazier, Hill and Stephen along with Bryson and Cam on the perimeter.”
Kaspar might have made the most improvement defensively. He played 21 minutes and had six defensive rebounds against the Leopards. His defensive effort drew praise from Paulsen in the coach’s opening statement after the game.
“This is the second game in a row Stephen has done a great job from the defensive perspective,” Paulsen said. “He really did a nice job on (Lafayette point guard Tony) Johnson.”
Kaspar admits that defense wasn’t something he was known for in high school in Tennessee.
“Defense is probably is the hardest adjustment. I didn’t play much (defense) in high school, not much good defense at least. It was just shooting the gaps and getting steals,” he said. “Staying down and guarding good players takes a lot of focus and a lot of energy.”
Bucknell’s defense will be tested Wednesday night in the first of what could be three meetings with Lehigh, the team that beat the Bison in the Patriot League final last season.
The game is slated to tip off at 6 p.m. and will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
It’s a contest the Bison have been pointing to since that loss.
“It’s on all our minds — the guys coming back — what happened last year in the finals; we do want some revenge,” Ayers said. “I expect a very high level of play on Wednesday night from both teams.”
One thing Bucknell will need to avoid is the slow start that has plagued it in Patriot League play.
“I think we’ve been sluggish the last two games previous to (Saturday), but if we do that Wednesday we’ll get out butts kicked to be honest,” Ayers said. “We definitely have to come out strong on Wednesday.”
The Bison, though, don’t think the slow starts have come from looking ahead to the Mountain Hawks.
“I don’t think we’ve thought about it too much. We just want to take care of business, (and) I’m not just saying that,” Kaspar said. “I think this team is really focused on each game. This is a focused team.”
Paulsen thinks the slow starts are more a function of getting into Patriot League play and the familiarity and preparation of the opposing coaches.
“There is a high level of preparation that the Patriot League coaches put into these games more than maybe than in some of our nonleague games,” Paulsen said. “We played against some teams that were much more athletic in our nonleague schedule, but these Patriot League teams are better prepared.
“We have to get to our second options, our third options in (our offense). That’s part of the progression in league play.”
Lehigh standout C.J. McCollum and his 23.9 points per game will, of course, miss the game with an injury, but the Mountain Hawks haven’t skipped a beat. They’ve won their last four games, including a 3-0 start in the Patriot League.
Forward Holden Greiner and point guard Mackey McKnight have each picked up their scoring in McCollum’s absence. Each has led the team in scoring twice since the injury.
Another familiar name, forward Gabe Knutson, now leads Lehigh in scoring at 14.1 points per game, with Greiner chipping in 12.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game. McKnight averages 11.7 points.
n Correspondent Todd Hummel covers college sports for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.