It would not be The Madness without Cinderella. And it does not get much better than the Bison (23-9 overall), the 14th seed in the Syracuse Regional, who face sixth-seeded Wisconsin (23-8) at approximately 3:50 p.m. Sunday, for a chance to advance to a regional semifinal March 25 in Syracuse, N.Y.
"Once [Simien's] shot bounced off the rim — that was just so exciting," Bucknell guard Kevin Bettencourt. "Just to see how hard we worked to get to this point. We came in and we weren't satisfied to be here. We wanted to win one. To accomplish that — it's unbelievable and now we just have to take the next step and take it to the Sweet Sixteen."
At this point in Friday's postgame press conference Bucknell coach Pat Flannery began, barely audibly, to discuss the virtues of ball handling with the three Bison players on the dais alongside him. They needed to have fewer than 10 turnovers to win, players and coach reminded each other. They had nine, eliciting one of many See, we did it moments following the Bison's improbable 64-63 win.
Some moments later, Flannery abruptly turned to the room full of reporters: "Sorry gang, we're not used to being here. This is the way we do it at home."
Home is Lewisburg, Pa., a tiny hamlet of about 5,500 people in eastern Pennsylvania, some 165 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The county seat of Union County (population approximately 42,000), Lewisburg is where you can find Bucknell University, a prestigious liberal arts college with about 3,500 students.
"It is really a tight knit community. Everybody knows everybody," junior forward Charles Lee said. "I've enjoyed it so far, my three years here."
Bucknell, originally the University of Lewisburg when it was founded in 1846, could hardly be any more different from the University of Wisconsin, its second round opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
Both are elite schools academically, but UW is a large public school (nestled in Madison, Wisconsin's capital city of about 220,000) with more than 40,000 students and classroom lectures that can hold hundreds of students.
Bucknell is a small private school with 17 students in the typical classroom.
The Badgers are part of the Big Ten Conference, one of the NCAA's power leagues. Bucknell is one of eight members of the Patriot League, which was a combined 0-13 in NCAA Tournament play until the Bison's breakthrough Friday night.
In 1896, Bucknell became one of the first three colleges in the United States to have men's basketball as a varsity sport, along with Minnesota and Yale. Now in their 110th season, the Bison won their first NCAA Tournament game on their third try, having lost opening-round games in 1987 and 1989.
"The whole thing was like a little surreal," Flannery said of beating Kansas, which has made 34 trips to the NCAA Tournament, fourth most in the nation behind only Kentucky, UCLA and North Carolina. "But when I sit down and look at it we were prepared, we were ready and we played really good basketball."
What it took was a combined 48 points from Bettencourt, junior forward Charles Lee, and sophomore center Chris McNaughton. It was McNaughton, the 6-foot-11 native of Germany, who banked a hook shot over Simien with 10.5 seconds left, putting the Bison up 64-63 to shock Kansas.
"All year somebody's made a big play when we've needed it," Bettencourt said. "Today Chris stepped up for us."
Reason to be proud
Prior to its upset win Friday night, Bucknell's claim to fame was its work in the classroom. Of the men's basketball players who entered Bucknell between 1994 and 1997, 100 percent graduated within six years, an accomplishment that only Utah State could match among the 65 teams in this year's NCAA Division I tournament.
Renowned for its academic institutions, the Patriot League did not allow athletics scholarships until the fall of 1998, when schools began to set their own limits. Bucknell's administration authorized a limited scholarship allotment two years ago, in an effort to compete with Holy Cross and American, Patriot League programs that allot the full 13 scholarships allowed by the NCAA. The Bison gave out three scholarships last season and two more this year.
"We'll never go to 13 but we'll get to nine or 10," Flannery said Saturday. The Bison players in large part do not know who among them is on scholarship.
"Fortunately, we've been able to keep harmony," said Flannery, who is in his 11th season as Bucknell's head coach. "What we've done this year; this goes a long way to keeping harmony."
Flannery, who is a Bucknell alumnus, insists that the program will never stray from its high academic standards.
"If you have kids our there that have over a 1,200 [SAT] and they're good players let me know," he said.
After Friday's game, Flannery looked across the arena to where the Bucknell faithful were sitting. Near his wife were six or seven former Bison players, who had flown in from California or Boston or wherever else their lives had taken them.
"I'm so happy for Bucknell and so happy for these kids that were here," Flannery said. "That really right now is what overwhelms because these kids are all so successful in life that if I told you where they were all at right now, to drop everything they are doing to come here, it means an awful lot. That's really where I'm at right now."