Philadelphia, PA – Every year there is at least one unheralded team in the NCAA Tournament field that pulls off a shocking upset to ruin their opponent's season and a high percentage of the brackets filled out by fans across the country.
This year, Bucknell of the Patriot League has a great chance of filling the role of Cinderella as the glass slipper appears to fit perfectly.
"We became a great defensive team," head coach Dave Paulsen said after his squad punched its ticket to the Big Dance with victory over Lafayette in its league final. "At times it made us not as pretty to watch offensively as we would like, but we felt like that was going to help us win a championship. These guys bought into it."
The Bison broke their school and league records for wins this season. That is nothing to sleep on considering their 2006 squad was good enough to crack the Top 25. Bucknell won NCAA Tournament games in 2005 (over Kansas) and 2006 and although it lost its first-round game in 2011, the setback came to the eventual NCAA champion Connecticut Huskies.
This season's Bison are built to repeat the success of the 2005 and 2006 teams with superstar senior center Mike Muscala being the main reason why the rest of the field will be hoping to avoid Bucknell in the tourney. Muscala earned his second Patriot League Player of the Year award after posting 22 double-doubles with averages of 19 points and 11.2 rebounds per game.
He could have won the league's player of the year award four times had he not entered college the same season as Lehigh's C.J. McCollum. While the Mountain Hawks pulled off a stunning upset of Duke in last season's Big Dance, Muscala tallied 20 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in a road victory over Arizona in the NIT. Bucknell's supporting cast is excellent as well.
Cameron Ayers, son of former Philadelphia 76ers head coach Randy Ayers, brings much more than a solid pedigree to the table. The 6-foot-5 junior guard has been invited to Chris Paul's CP3 Elite Guard Camp each of the past two summers, a great honor considering under 20 players were invited to each camp. Ayers contributes 12.5 points, four rebounds and two assists per game while efficiently draining 47.2 percent of his field goal attempts and 39.4 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Bryson Johnson and Joe Willman both net over 10 ppg as well to keep the opposition from keying on Muscala too much. After McCollum went down with a season-ending injury during Lehigh's non-conference slate, the Patriot League became Bucknell's to lose.
"They really had a target on their backs, and they answered every challenge," said Paulsen, who earned his 99th Bucknell win, and a record 78th in the last three seasons, in the Patriot final. "This group has never had a bad day of practice. Their focus level, their energy level and their unselfishness has just been terrific."
The team's three non-conference losses came against Penn State in the Bryce Jordan Center (where Michigan failed to find a win), the Ivy League's second- place Princeton Tigers on the road and finally at Missouri by just two points. Bucknell defeated Purdue, La Salle and every one of its Patriot League foes.
Unfortunately for the teams from the bigger leagues, the Bison are not the only small conference team with a superstar to fear.
The Summit League's South Dakota State Jackrabbits have perhaps the best point guard in the nation in Nate Wolters. The senior guard carries surreal averages of 22.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game into his final postseason. Wolters didn't sneak up on anyone for his stellar senior campaign either as both his sophomore (19.5 ppg, 6.1 apg, 4.6 rpg) and junior (21.2 ppg, 5.9 apg, 5.1 rpg) seasons were almost as impressive.
After Wolters won the Summit League Player of the Year for the first time, his coach confirmed his belief in his talented floor general. "He's certainly deserving of the honor, I don't think anybody can question why he would be the player of the year when you look at his stats, but, more importantly, how important he is to our team," Scott Nagy said. "He's definitely the best player in our league."
The Jackrabbits fell by only eight points to a Baylor squad that had three starters drafted by NBA teams last June in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Although Wolters clearly indicated he is the go-to-guy with a 53-point outing earlier this season against IUPU-Fort Wayne, he has plenty of support with Jordan Dykstra (12.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Tony Fiegen (10.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Chad White (10 ppg) and Brayden Carlson (8.7 ppg) all contributing to the team's second Summit League Tournament title run.
Another candidate to ruin your favorite team's championship hopes is coach Tommy Amaker's Harvard Crimson. The Ivy League champions were expected to claim their third consecutive conference title after a remarkable showing last season, but that changed when their senior co-captains Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey were forced to withdraw from school after it became clear they were involved in an academic cheating scandal that involved over 100 students. This all took place shortly before the 2012-13 school year began, but Amaker made the most of what he had as his freshman guard Siyani Chambers took advantage of the opportunity.
Chambers became the first player in conference's history to be named to the All-Ivy League first team as a freshman. He finished eighth in the league in scoring with 12.9 ppg to go along with 5.4 assists per game. Wesley Saunders (16.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.9 steals per game) joined him on the first team as a unanimous selection while Laurent Rivard (10.4 ppg) and Steve Moundou-Missi (7.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) garnered honorable mention accolades.
Harvard stunned some notable programs such as Boston College and California and lost by just one point to the Saint Mary's Gaels on the road during their non- conference slate. "They hit shots. We didn't shoot it well," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "We had a ton of excuses we could've made, but we didn't. They kept stopping our runs, credit them, but we kept coming and the last time, we got them."
It should not be too big of a shock if Bucknell, South Dakota State or Harvard pulls an upset in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Plus, there are plenty of more teams that can not be slept on, either, such as Florida Gulf Coast, Valparaiso and Davidson.
In a season in which it seemed like the No. 1 team lost just about every week down the stretch, it will be quite interesting to see how many upsets March Madness generates.