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NCAA Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers - Bucknell Bison

Bucknell brings the very familiar profile of a mid-tier conference champion to the NCAA Tournament – one that shows a team fully capable of springing an upset or two.

SCOUTING THE BISON

If momentum means anything, Bucknell is primed. It brings a 14-2 record and a Patriot League title into this first round meeting, as it dominated the conference on its way to both the regular season and tournament titles. After being upset as the number one team in last season's league tournament, the Bison rolled up a 15-3 league record and swept through the league postseason, winning all three games at home.

Center Nana Foulland is the star up front, tallying 14.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, as well as contributing defensive chops that earned him league player of the year and defensive player of the year honors. He makes 62.5% of his field goal attempts, good for 10th place nationally. Forward Zach Thomas (6-7, 230 lbs.) is an excellent counterpart, earning tournament MVP and first-team all league honors. He averaged 16 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists over the course of the year, and was the only player to finish in the top ten in the league in all three of those metrics.

Guards Stephen Brown (5-11, 165 lbs.) and Kimbal MacKenzie (6-1, 190 lbs.) are the features in the backcourt, with Brown averaging 10.9 points while doling out nearly five assists per game, and MacKenzie denting the scoreboard for 11.5 points per contest. Avi Toomer (6-3, 185 lbs.) stepped in for injured starter Nate Jones (6.5, 205 lbs.) in late December, and while averaging just 3.2 points per game, and been good defensively and selective in his shot attempts.

The Bison will go ten deep on the roster, with backups averaging between nine and 12 minutes per game. They shoot the ball well, hitting 49.3% overall and 39.3% from distance, and play with a pace on offense that West Virginia must disrupt. Defensively, they will employ both man and zone looks, but the first priority for them is clogging the lane and preventing drives, meaning WVU must either hit some outside shots or figure out a way to break down the Bison interior defense to produce closer chances.

GAME OUTLOOK

So, did Bucknell build its resume by dominating a weaker league, or does it have the chops to play with upper-tier conference foes?

WVU (26-8) vs. BU (26-8) Thu Mar 16 2:45 PM EST
KeyBank Center Buffalo, NY Series: WVU 8-0
SEED: WVU - 4 BU - 13 TV: CBS Sirius/XM: 134/201

The answer usually is “some of both” and that appears to be the case here as well. The Bison do have some quality performers that could compete in any league, although perhaps not as stars or starters. That doesn't mean, though, that they aren't capable of knocking off a four or five seed. We're not talking about the MidEast Intercontinental Athletic Conference here. The Patriot League is respectable, and Bucknell dominated.

West Virginia has to respect the Bison. That was a huge problem lain last year's Stephen F. Austin match-up and it's unlikely to be repeated this season. WVU can't go overboard, though, and play with caution or with a fear of making mistakes. It needs to get back to its swashbuckling ways on defense, whether or not that's in the full court press. It needs to harass just as much in the halfcourt, and be more active in pressuring the ball and in cutting down passing lanes. In short, it needs to play with the elan that marked its best stretches of the season. Bucknell, while shooting the ball effectively, hasn't faced a lot of pressure in the halfcourt, and many foes haven't “gotten up into” the Bison when they run sets. Their ability to deal with that sort of pressure, assuming WVU deploys it consistently, will be a key to the game.

Offensively, there's also been a lack of...something. No one from WVU could exactly put their finger on it, although head coach Bob Huggins trotted out the familiar “Do what you can do, not what you can't” refrain again. (This last occurrence broke the record for mentions of “no rear-view mirrors” on the Huggs career list, by the way.) That doesn't make it any less valid, though. For whatever reason, the Mountaineers haven't been able to get good looks consistently in the halfcourt, and its transition chances have dwindled. Both of those things must get a boost for the Mountaineers to duplicate their 2010 NCAA success in Buffalo, when they began a run to the Final Four.

PRESS POINTS

West Virginia last played Bucknell on Jan. 3, 1977 at the WVU Coliseum. Huggins scored 14 points and had two rebounds, two assists and no turnovers in 28 minutes of action as a starter. He made all four of his free throws and was 5-9 from the field.

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Bucknell either doesn't have a pep band or isn't sending one to Buffalo. Instead, the pep band at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Penn., has been secured to play for the Bison. They will receive Bucknell gear to wear and will sit in the Bucknell band section.

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West Virginia's 24 regular season wins match the school record for regular season wins. The Mountaineers reached that total last season, and also recorded two dozen regular season victories in 2010, 1989 and 1982.

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Smaller, regional schools tend to recruit in their own backyard, but the Bison buck that scenario. Only two players on their 13 man roster are from the home state of Pennsylvania. In all, eight different states, as well as one Canadian province, are represented on Bucknell's playing list.


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