Well the brackets are out and Michigan State will draw Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night in Detroit. So let’s dive in and get to know the Bison of Bucknell, the 14th seed in the Midwest Region.
Bucknell earned their eighth NCAA Tournament bid by winning the Patriot League for the second consecutive year. The Bison dominated conference play going 16-2 and after grinding out a win in their first conference tournament game, crushed their next two opponents to take the title.
Bucknell is coached by Nathan Davis, who is in his third year at the helm. In each of his three seasons, the Bison have won the regular season title in the Patriot League. Bucknell is 45-9 in Patriot League play under Davis, a fantastic .833 winning percentage.
The Bison played a pretty tough non-conference schedule, and as a result, started off the season 0-4. Three of those losses were to power conference opponents in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Maryland. They also had non-conference tilts with St Joe’s and VCU. The Bison hung around in a few of those games, but were not able to pull any of them out. The closest game was a two point loss at Maryland.
Taking a look at their schedule on kenpom, it appears that their best win of the year was at home against Vermont. They played six games this year that were listed as either Tier A or B games and they lost all six of them.
But they certainly have experience playing in tough environments, having played at Arkansas, UNC, and Maryland this year, as well as at Wake Forest and Butler last year. And they took West Virginia to the limit in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year as a 13 seed.
But, the Patriot League was one of the weakest conferences in college basketball this year, and as a result, Bucknell hasn’t seen an opponent even in the ballpark of Michigan State since early November.
Bucknell checks in at 99th in the kenpom AdjO rankings. But they are one of the more up-tempo teams in the country. They rank 37th in adjusted tempo, at 71.4 possessions per game, whereas MSU is 222nd in tempo at 67.1 possessions. So while some teams like to slow things down, Bucknell is looking to get as many possessions as they can.
The Bison are a pretty solid shooting team. They are 61st in eFG% at 54.0, and are 23rd in the country at 55.6% from two-point range. They are not a great three-point shooting team, sitting at 34.3%, which is 208th nationally and almost a full point below the D-1 average.
They also get to the free throw line a lot. Bucknell checks in at 13th nationally in free throw rate at 42.3, and they make 71.8% of their shots from the line. Now MSU isn’t a great team at keeping opponents off the line, but they are certainly better than average. However, we have seen some instances this year where the free throw totals get out of whack.
One area where the Bison do struggle though is on the offensive glass. Bucknell is 222nd in offensive rebounding at 27.3 percent. That is below average and while MSU hasn’t been nearly as dominant on the defensive glass this year as they have in the past, that is an area they should have a pretty obvious advantage.
So who is doing all this scoring for Bucknell? Well it is really a trio of seniors that leads the way scoring wise for the Bison.
Zach Thomas, a 6-7 forward was the Patriot League player of the year this year averaging 20.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Thomas is an inside and outside threat, knocking down 51.3% of his shots from inside the arc, and 37.3% of them from three-point range. He was second on the team in three-point attempts so he is not afraid to shoot from out there.
Thomas is also very skilled at getting to the free throw line. He was fifth in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes and knocked down 77.3% of his 299 free throw attempts.
In addition to the current Patriot League player of the year, the Bison also have last year’s player of the year, Nana Foulland, a 6-9 center averaging 15.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Unlike Thomas, Foulland is a strictly inside the arc player. But he is very effective, shooting at a 60.3% clip. He also gets to the line quite often, although he shoots just 56.3% from the charity stripe.
The final member of the Bucknell senior trio is point guard Stephen Brown, who averages 14.9 points and 4.3 assists per game. Brown is just 5-11 and 165 lbs. so he’s not a size issue, but he can score. He shoots 36.3% from beyond the arc and 57.3% inside of it. Brown doesn’t get to the line as often as the other two, but when he does he is nearly automatic at 84.2 percent.
The big three for Bucknell all play pretty close to 30 minutes per game. After that they have three other players that average at least 20 minutes, and one more at almost 15 minutes per game. So they will roll eight or nine players at you, while relying on their big three.
In addition to Thomas and Foulland, Bucknell also starts 6-8 forward Bruce Moore, and uses 6-8 Nate Sestina off the bench. So they have some size they can throw at Michigan State.
Bucknell checks in at 112th in the kenpom adjD rankings. Not great, but not terrible either. They are a very solid 34th in eFG% defense and 49th in two-point percentage defense. Their three-point defense isn’t too shabby either, checking in at 68th overall, holding opponents to 33.2 percent.
They don’t force a ton of turnovers, although MSU tends to just give them away so maybe that will even out. The Bison aren’t a fantastic defensive rebounding team, but they are slightly above average. Zach Thomas leads the way at 26.4% on the defensive glass. However, MSU is the fifth best offensive rebounding team in the country, and Nick Ward is number one in offensive rebounding rate, so that is an area they might be able to take advantage of.
The Bison do block a few shots, checking in with a block rate of 10.6%, although a far cry from MSU’s number one rate of 18.8 percent. Nana Foulland is their best shot blocker at 6.1%, and averages about 1.8 per game.
Bucknell plays mostly man-to-man defense so, there aren’t any weird wrinkles that should pop up. Having a handful of players they can toss out at 6-7 or taller allows them to matchup without having to go to zone.
This is an experienced team, which is very used to playing together. They have dominated their league for the last two seasons and rely heavily on upper-classmen. They have superstar player that can beat you both inside and out, as well as get to the line.
Toss in a senior point-guard who is coming off a huge conference tournament where he averaged 21.3 points per game, and you have a team that could be very scary.
This is the type of mid-major squad that can go out and pop a top seed in the first round, and Michigan State better come ready to play.
All that said, MSU is a damn good team. They can also beat you inside and outside on offense, and they shut teams down inside the arc on defense. There are no Jaren Jackson’s in the Patriot League coming to wipe your shot away.
I also think the up-tempo style of play the Bison like to do will benefit the Spartans. If they can slow Bucknell down, they might be able to force them into some bad shots early in the clock. The key for MSU will be not letting Bucknell get easy transition looks, so limiting turnovers will be important.
Fouls could also really come into play in this game. Bucknell likes to get to the line, and Jaren Jackson has been foul prone this year. I expect both teams to try and pound it down low to their big men early to try and maybe grab a couple quick fouls on the opposing big men. The early results of that could go a long way to determining how the game goes.
Finally, the Spartans will need to figure out the best way to match-up defensively. Ward will likely draw Foulland, as neither of them will wander too far from the bucket. But figuring out who to put on Thomas will be the key. You can go with Jackson, but then you have to worry about potential foul trouble. Or you could go with Bridges and have Jackson coming to help when Thomas tries to back him down. Neither Moore, nor Sesitna are big three-point threats so Jackson leaving them to help shouldn’t be a huge issue.
Regardless, Michigan State better come ready to play in this one. Bucknell hasn’t been tested in a long time, but this is a team that is very comfortable with themselves and will not be afraid of the moment. There are no easy games in March, and this one won’t be any different.