Every mid-major coach faces similar struggles when it comes to scheduling games for their team: how to line up enough tough opponents to battle-test their squad during the non-conference, but not so many to crush their team’s spirits. And as this season was about to tip-off, Bucknell basketball head coach Dave Paulsen knew his team was about to walk into an ambush of sorts.
With games lined up all over the country each week, including nationally ranked squads Michigan and Villanova, along with heavy hitters like Wake Forest and Penn State, Paulsen’s focus was simply to make it to league play in one piece knowing the team has learned something from each game.
“I felt like with the schedule we played in non-league play, if we could get to the end of the first semester, get through exams in one piece, psychologically and physically, we feel like it’s gonna make us better during the second half of the year,” said Paulsen. “We played a brutal non-league schedule, not only in terms of teams we played, but the amount of travel. Just academically, keeping up with everything you’re doing academically and the travel, it takes a toll.”
On Dec. 31, when the team was gearing up to host American University, the Bison held a 5-8 record and was fresh off of a 73-71 road loss against Siena, a game the Bison feel should have resulted in a different outcome.
“We had a tough non-league schedule. I feel like we shouldn’t have lost to Siena, that was a tough game for us,” said junior guard Chris Hass.
“I was disappointed with our record but I wasn’t discouraged coming into [conference play],” said Paulsen.
No team goes into games expecting so lose, so it is understandable for any coach to be disappointed with his team being three games under .500 going into league play. Paulsen remained upbeat because he knew there was plenty of potential with the team he assembled.
“You could see guys starting to put two or three good plays together or four,” said Paulsen of his young squad. “See guys start to trust each other a little bit more.”
Those “guys” are three freshmen in center Nana Foulland and guards Stephen Brown and J.C. Show and sophomore John Azzinaro. With the exception of Brown, all players have played in at least 45 percent of the team’s minutes. Having such a youthful presence presents challenges, as they were largely trying to simply keep their heads above water while they adjusted to the pace of Division I ball.
Moreover, Paulsen’s team was able to make it to the other side of a brutal semester and come out of the gate on fire in terms of Patriot League play.
On Saturday, the Bison dealt Boston University, a team that appeared primed to turn the corner after knocking off American on Wednesday, a 92-77 loss on the Terriers’ home floor.
“I think in both ways we’re starting to evolve and get a little better,” said Paulsen. “We’re starting to figure out how to play with each other offensively.”
Hass was the star of the day, pacing the Bison with 28 points and five rebounds, shooting 10-for-16 from the floor and 6-for-7 from downtown, but several of the younger Bison played big roles as well.
“As other guys have gotten better offensively, they’ve made it better for Chris,” said Paulsen. “There’s other guys, Stephen Brown, getting to rim, hitting some threes, John Azzinaro, obviously Nana Foulland in the post. Earlier in the year – all of those guys I mention are freshman and sophomores – and they weren’t as reliable as scorers so there’s more of a focus on Chris. He got some open looks tonight because the other guys were able to score.”
Of the freshmen, one player who has made perhaps the biggest strides is Brown, who had to work perhaps harder than his freshmen counterparts to see the floor.
“Nana was right away, we felt that,” said Paulsen. “J.C. Show has been starting, he’s dealing with some injuries, he’s kinda back at a limited basis. Stephen Brown, I thought would be a really good point guard. I didn’t know if he’d be ready this year to be honest in terms of playing solid in the half-court setting.”
Being new to the Patriot League is not an easy adjustment for some players, especially if they are run and gun type of guys like Brown, who have the talent but just need to adjust to the pace and styles that Patriot teams employ.
“He’s just dynamic, and explosive, and he’s grown tremendously in that regard,” said Paulsen. “Again, you never really know how quickly it’ll all catch. You saw the talent, potential, and ability, putting it all together, it happens at a different pace for every guy. For most people the speed of the game is too fast for them, with it’s like you can’t go 100 miles per hour all the time, sometimes there’s cops out there and the roads are icy, you got to drive that sucker 55, that’s kind of what he’s adjusted to.”
Since entering conference play, the Bison have had the best offensive efficiency in the league, scoring over 113 points per 100 possessions, and their defense ranks fourth in its respective category with over 104 points per 100 possessions. The combination of the two are positive signs for Bucknell, but Paulsen and the Bison won’t get ahead of themselves just yet as they know there is plenty left to be determined on the hardwood and it is a grueling season.
“Just learning what it takes, this league is a grind,” said Paulsen on what his team needs to continue working on.