Commentary

Bucknell longs for heady days of (two) years past

Originally Published: November 26, 2008
By Kyle Whelliston | ESPN.com

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- The "Sojka Psychos," once a noisy sea of bright orange T-shirts, have been reduced to a few quiet puddles of pensive wait-and-see. When Bucknell takes the floor these days, it does so under the long shadow of a corner wall full of reminders of a glorious three-year run -- banners that commemorate two NCAA Round of 32 appearances, a national ranking, an unprecedented 17-0 record against the Patriot League.

[+] EnlargeChris McNaughton
AP Phoito/Sue OgrockiIt was only three years ago when Chris McNaughton and Bucknell shocked Kansas in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament.
Just as quickly as they emerged from college basketball's shadows, the Bison are back under the radar.

Three years ago, Bucknell was coming off a stunning 14-over-3 upset of Kansas in the 2005 NCAA tournament and was in the process of making itself permanent fixtures in the national conversation. In earning road-warrior wins over Syracuse and DePaul and beating Saint Joseph's at home in the 2005-06 season, Bucknell built a résumé that later included a spotless league record, a historic first national ranking (a No. 24 spot in the Feb. 14, 2006 polls) and, finally, a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But 36 months, the length of an average car lease, is a virtual eternity in college basketball. Every member of the team that famously rocked the Jayhawks in 2005 has moved on. Chris McNaughton, the burly center who hit the winning shot against Kansas, is playing in Spain. Sniper Kevin Bettencourt is an assistant at Division II Bentley University. Only three little-used freshmen, now seniors, remain from the squad that went 27-5 and beat Arkansas in the 2006 tournament's first round.

"There's been a lot of transition," said senior guard Justin Castleberry, who went 3-for-5 from the floor the entire 2005-06 season. "Not really a regime change or an overhaul … but we've brought in a different coaching style, philosophy, different players coming in. Every different team has its own identity, but we're just trying to find those things again that once made us successful, that made us a tournament team two straight years."

De facto regime change occurred in May, when Pat Flannery retired as head coach after leading the team to 234 wins in 14 seasons. In came Dave Paulsen, a two-time national coach of the year at the Division III level at Williams College, where he won the 2003 national championship.

"The success of those 2005 and 2006 teams remains big for this school, no doubt," Paulsen said. "It said, 'This is how we can be, this is how big we can become.' But sometimes it can become a bit of a burden. We can't be distracted by it as we build this. We have to do what we do, embrace the process and work our rear ends off. We can't lose sight of the big picture."

Dave Paulsen
AP Photo/Nick WassDave Paulsen is charged with the task of rebuilding the Bison back into a Patriot League power.
Paulsen's earliest efforts here were nothing to sew together a new set of banners about. The Bison stumbled to an 0-3 record, starting with a forgettable 29-point blowout at Maryland in their new coach's debut. A pair of overtime losses to Boston University and Saint Francis (Pa.) followed, two teams that had served as road bumps during the glory years when Bucknell was building gaudy records and gaining national attention.

But the new coach hasn't looked to the old days for solace or guidance. Flannery remains attached to Bucknell in a fundraising capacity, but he has kept his distance from a program that gave him nearly as much pain as satisfaction. (During the Bison's extended run, Flannery took two leaves of absence because of stress and health issues.) Aside from a low-key appearance at Bucknell's home opener, Flannery has kept his distance from program, but Paulsen hardly is offended.

"I've known Pat for a long time. He was the very first guy I met when I was starting out coaching," Paulsen said. "He's done a great job of showing that he's supportive of these kids and the program, but at the same time he's given me my space. I embrace the success and everything his era represents in Bucknell history, but we're going to do things differently. I didn't bother him with 'What about this kid, what about that kid?' I didn't watch any tape over the summer of the previous team. I told the players that we're starting with a clean slate, and they've really responded positively to that."

A few things link the new Bucknell team with the old. Paulsen shares the same close-cropped haircut as his predecessor and paces the sideline in similar fashion -- with his tie swinging as he claps, pleads and exhorts his players to keep their hands up on defense. And at first blush, this year's team could be mistaken for any classic Bison bunch, featuring the same scrappy and lunging style necessary when a program is unable to compete with power-conference schools for the nation's most prized recruits.

Not that a lack of blue-chip talent kept the mid-decade Bison from achieving excellence. The school's reputation as central Pennsylvania's brain factory (in a league that didn't even offer scholarships a decade ago) spells out rigid rules for acceptance, but Bucknell teams of future engineers and scientists were able to come together and outplay squads full of players whose true majors were hoops. Bucknell's desire to maintain and retain its basketball success, even as the 2007-08 team saw more home losses (six) than it had in the previous four years combined, never led to a compromise of its academic principles.

"All the winning here proved that you really can be great at both, basketball and classes," Paulsen explained Tuesday. "For instance, today we had our game-day shootaround from 12:15 to 12:45, guys got out of class and sprinted over here, watched 10 minutes of film, then they shot some free throws. Then they had to get back for 1 o'clock classes, but we were just glad we could get everyone together for a half hour. I don't know if that happens anywhere else. Half of the kids didn't make it to the pregame meal because their labs got out at 5."

[+] EnlargeJustin Castleberry
Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMIJustin Castleberry is one of few Bison players on the current roster to have played in the NCAA tournament.
After class on Tuesday, a very hungry Bucknell team hosted Old Dominion. It was a return game for a February BracketBusters matchup that was selected specifically to feature two mid-major programs with recent breakthrough success -- ODU, for its part, achieved two NCAA berths in three years out of the Colonial Athletic Association, including an at-large bid in 2007. But the 2008-09 versions of both teams seemed to be going in completely opposite directions. The tough, physical Monarchs are making a play for a return to the CAA's top spot, while the Bison are in full rebuilding mode, just trying to find their way.

But as the game progressed, Bucknell's tenacity overshadowed ODU's advantage in sheer physical strength. The Monarchs managed just 31 percent shooting, while the Bison eked out a series of hard-fought baskets. Several of those were accomplished by promising 6-5 freshman Bryan Cohen, an oversized shooting guard for whom the Kansas and Arkansas games acted as recruiting videos.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't know about Bucknell before [the 2005 and 2006 NCAA teams]," the Philadelphia-area native said later. "I also knew John Griffin, who was on those teams, and he told me great things about the school, and I looked into it. One visit, and I immediately fell in love with this place."

In the second half, there were significantly fewer fuzzy feelings. ODU fought back to wipe out an 11-point Bucknell lead in just four minutes. As the Monarchs consistently drove to the basket with precise abandon, Bucknell's midrange jumpers and transition opportunities kept them in the game.

Countervailing forces balanced after 40 minutes, then 45. Finally, in the second overtime, the even-keeled Castleberry scored the team's last seven points (more than in his entire freshman year) to finish with 31, including the driving layup that sealed the win.

As the buzzer sounded on an 83-82 double-overtime win, the first in the Paulsen era, the 2,200 fans who filled out half the seats at Sojka Pavilion filled the arena with the same crackling roar as was often heard in the not-too-distant past.

"This is great," a smiling and relieved Paulsen said after the game. "This was a game, on paper, that we didn't think we were going to win. But it's important to take this first step, it's the first step on the way towards where we want to be."

Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).