2011 NCAA Tournament Preview West Region – First Round (14) Bucknell vs. (3) Connecticut
Thursday, March 17, 7:20 PM ET
The Connecticut Huskies have just made history. They’re also mentally tired. This simple dual reality creates more than a little intrigue for a matchup that is lopsided on paper, but could become complicated simple because of the limits of the human body.
After a terrific run through the Big East Tournament that saw the ninth-seeded team in the league win five games in five nights, the Connecticut Huskies were rewarded with a three seed in the West Region. The opponent they drew, the Bison of Bucknell, breezed through the Patriot League, finishing the regular season at 13-1 in the conference and winning three tournament games to capture the league championship. This forms the backdrop for a unique kind of creature in round one of this year’s Dance: Connecticut achieved something quite spectacular last week in Madison Square Garden, but Bucknell is going to be a lot fresher and fitter than the UConn crew.
The Bison, 2-4 in the NCAA tournament with their most recent appearance coming in 2006, are no strangers to the 3/14 game. In 2005, the Bison were given the 14 seed and promptly went on to shock third-seeded Kansas in the first round. The following year they were given the 9 seed, beating eighth-seeded Arkansas before succumbing to top-seeded Memphis. The Bison are coached by Dave Paulsen, who is in his third year as coach and making his first NCAA tournament appearance.
On the opposite end sit the Huskies. Coached by Jim Calhoun, the Huskies are 46-28 in NCAA tournament history and 45-19 under Calhoun (that’s right; the school won just one NCAA game without its program patriarch, the feisty Irish-American who prowls the UConn bench on game nights). Their last appearance came in 2009, when they were a 1 seed (in the West Region, no less) and made it all the way to the Final Four before falling to Michigan State. The Huskies were also placed in the West Region in 1999 and 2004, winning the national championship both times. They missed the tournament last year before rebounding this year in what many thought would be a rebuilding process.
A major reason that the Huskies outdid expectations is guard Kemba Walker, the fourth-highest scorer in the NCAA this season at 23.5 points per game. On a young team looking for a go-to-guy, Walker's development has been huge. Aside from Walker, Jeremy Lamb (10.3 points per game) and Alex Oriakhi (10 points per game) also score in double figures. Oriakhi is also the team's best rebounder, getting 8.5 per game, and needs to play well for the team to have a shot. It was Oriakhi’s work on the offensive glass that powered Connecticut to its stunning tour de force last week in New York.
The Bison enter the tournament having won 10 games in a row and 19 of their last 20. They went 23-2 to end the season, after a disappointing 2-6 start. The Bison are led by big man Mike Muscala, who averages 14.9 points per game, and guard Bryson Johnson, who drops in 11.7 per game. Johnson has been hitting from three-point range at a 46-percent clip this season. The other guy to keep an eye on is guard Bryan Cohen, who will be tasked with the assignment of limiting Walker.
Offensively, both teams score a bit over 70 points per game. Defensively, the Huskies give up 66.4 per game while the Bison hold opponents to 63.4. Bucknell is in the top 10 nationally in opponent field goal percentage, holding opponents to a 39.2-percent mark. On that end, the Huskies are tied for 185th in the nation on the offensive end, shooting just 43.3 percent from the field. The Bison are 7th in the nation in three-point shooting percentage, an aspect of in-game competition Connecticut has struggled to defend this season. If the Huskies struggle to remain disciplined on defense, Bucknell's motion offense could cause them many problems.
Cohen was named the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, leading the very stingy Bison defense; how well Bucknell contains Kemba Walker will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game. So will UConn’s ability (or lack thereof) to fight through almost-certain mental fatigue after its draining five-day gauntlet last week at the Big East Tournament.
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