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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
A victory over Holy Cross in Worcester in the Patriot League title game and then a first-round upset of Kansas in the NCAA Tournament -- highlighting the Bison's first Big Dance appearance since 1989 -- gave everyone in Lewisburg, Pa., a reason to party.
They had such a fun time, everybody's back to try and create a sequel.
Entering the 2005-06 season, the Bison -- who return all five starters and 12 lettermen -- are surely the favorite to finish the winter on top of the conference standings. Bucknell is ready to play.
"I think with the kids we have coming back, we have to build on what we did last year," said Bison coach Pat Flannery, who enters his 12th season armed with a new four-year contract. "We're certainly people who are going to be hunted and that's a different challenge that we'll have."
Floating at the top of Bucknell's deep talent pool is senior Kevin Bettencourt (12.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg). The 6-2 guard earned second-team All-Patriot League honors for the second straight season and gained national acclaim with 19 points and five three-point goals in the upset of the Jayhawks. The leading returning scorer in the conference, Bettencourt was seventh on the league points-per-game charts in 2004-05 and also finished 10th in assists (2.39), seventh in steals (1.67) and third in free-throw percentage (88.8 percent).
He'll once again be instrumental in Bucknell's success at both ends of the floor.
"He's a senior now and every year I think he's gotten better at a different part of his game," Flannery said. "Last year he played better defense than his first two years. He's always been a scorer. And he went from being a slasher to someone who could stand still and knock the lights out. I expect he'll have a great year in all aspects of the game."
The second half of Bucknell's one-two punch is junior swing man Charles Lee (12.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Despite a season during which he earned first-team All-Patriot League status (and finished fourth in rebounding at just 6-3), Lee can be even more productive this season.
"Charles, he just had a fantastic year last year," Flannery said about the player who finished third in the league in three-point percentage (42.2 percent) and ninth in scoring. "He had games where he just dominated. The big thing in his last year will be consistency. Last year, he never had a bad game, but our goal is to find a way that he can be consistently as good as he can be. He's a match-up problem and he's one of our best defenders."
Running the show again will be 6-0 junior point guard Abe Badmus (5.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg). The 2005 Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year finished third in steals (1.87), but wasn't a liability on offense. He finished fourth in assists per game (3.45) and also shot an impressive 41.7 percent from three-point range in limited attempts (20-for-48). Entering his second season as a full-time starter, Badmus will try to become even more of a threat from the perimeter.
"He had a great summer and he keeps getting better," Flannery said. "A lot of times, he goes the way he's shooting the basketball because that's really starting to be a part of his game. He wants to be so good. He's a good passer, ball handler, leader ... sometimes [his shooting takes away from that]. He's looking to be a consistent jump shooter."
In the middle, German import Chris McNaughton (12.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) continues to develop into a weapon. The 6-11 junior center finished eighth in the league in scoring and ninth in blocked shots per game (0.85), but his most impressive stat was field-goal percentage -- a league-leading 59.6. After the way he played down the stretch last spring (he hit the game-winning shot against Kansas) the time he spent over the summer with Team Germany at the World University Games, McNaughton should be ready for even more responsibility.
"He just runs so well and he's big. I think sometimes we don't go to him enough because his percentage is unreal," Flannery said. "A lot of times people double- and triple-team him and he'll have to play with the double- and triple teams. He's an unselfish kid, sometimes to a fault. I'm looking forward to him [having a big year] after playing against the competition with Pitt and Kansas and Holy Cross in our own conference."
After earning the starting power forward spot last January, sophomore Darren Mastropaolo (3.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg) will again try and produce as a formidable sidekick for McNaughton. While his defense and rebounding was sound as a rookie, the 6-8 Mastropaolo will need to add a little more offense in order to take the heat of his teammate in the paint.
Reserve forward Chris Niesz (3.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg) was the only lettermen to leave the program after last season. A healthy John Clark should be in the mix to pick up the slack for the Bison. After finishing 2003-04 as a starter, the 6-7 Clark's sophomore year was marked mostly by a painful foot injury (he had off-season surgery) that limited him to just 14.3 minutes per game in his 31 appearances.
An athletic player and solid defender, 6-6 junior Donald Brown (3.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg) settled in as a key reserve last season and should provide the Bison with the same energy in reserve again.
When he needs long-range shooting and ball handling in reserve, Flannery can turn to 6-2 sophomore John Griffin (6.9 ppg, 1.8 rpg). As a freshman, Griffin emerged as the first guard off the bench and earned a spot on the conference all-rookie team.
Three recruits -- 6-1 guard Justin Castleberry, 6-2 guard Jason Vegotsky and 6-11 center Josh Linthicum -- might be able to break the Bison rotation.
"I expect them to play. We're a high-energy team with a lot of defense and offensively we like to run the ball," Flannery said. "We're not just our key people, we can use 10, 11 kids."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Nowadays, a first-round NCAA Tournament upset of a perennial power does more for a mid-major program than write its name in permanent ink in Cinderella folklore. The Bison found that out when their upset of Kansas won an ESPY Award for the "Best Upset" in July.
The award continued to prove to Flannery how important a victory it was.
"Every day I think it has [sunk in] and I'll get another e-mail or letter from Australia or Hawaii or somewhere and I'll realize how it really did affect a lot of people," Flannery said.
Bucknell's stirring conclusion to the 2004-05 campaign not only touched people all over the world, it raised the bar for Bison hoops in followers' minds. The Bison, however, can't -- and won't -- expect last year's accolades to win them anything this year.
"Certainly, going into the season, there's a certain kind of pride. But you can't go overboard," Flannery said. "You can't forget the things you did, and you should be proud of your accomplishments. But you can't overstep that. We'll use that [to build on], and we take a lot of pride in our program. ... We have been in that spot here and there and some kids here have never been in that spot. And we'll have to do some teaching."
The mentoring will be a lot easier with the type of talent Flannery has back at his disposal and the sky's the limit for the Bison.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).