Bucknell ignores odds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Bucknell basketball coach Pat Flannery preaches that old-time religion of stout defense and pass-and-move offense.

But it's his disciples, the feisty Bison, who have performed miracles with three wins over Top 20 teams in the past year, including a stunner over No. 12 Kansas in the opening round of last year's NCAA tournament. With a victory already this season over then-No. 17 Syracuse, Bucknell (9-3) opens its Patriot League season today at Navy (6-6).

"I always felt that if you were going to be a good road team, [defense] is something that you're going to have to do and have to embrace and you have to sell your kids on it," Flannery said after practice earlier this week.

"Defense is one area where we could get the toughness in our kids," the coach added, "and if we can get them to buy into it, we can say, 'Well, if we don't shoot the ball so well some night [we can still win].' "

Bucknell's surprise victories, which, besides those over Kansas and Syracuse, include one over then-No. 7 Pittsburgh last January and over a handful of Big East and Atlantic 10 opponents, have almost always come on the strength of its defense, a mix of man-to-man and matchup zone.

In the three wins over the nationally ranked teams, Bucknell held the other team to an average of 66 points. Over the past 38 games, the Bison are 29-9; Wisconsin bounced them from the NCAA tournament.

The consistent success punctuated by startling upsets has made Bucknell enough of a college basketball darling that ESPN has included the team in a documentary series currently being aired.

"When I got here four years ago, being followed by an ESPN camera crew wasn't something that I expected. It's been great," senior guard Kevin Bettencourt said.

Not every giant that Bucknell faces, though, ends up slain. In its most recent game on Jan. 2, the Bison were trounced by No. 1 Duke, and No. 3 Villanova has beaten Bucknell twice in two seasons, including this past December on the Bison's home court.

But Villanova coach Jay Wright, a Bucknell alumnus, understands why the Bison are so cohesive and, as a result, so dangerous.

"I don't think you have guys there that are concerned about going to the NBA," Wright said. "They're concerned about playing for Bucknell, playing for Coach Flannery and playing for each other. And they really have a passion for what they're doing. You put all those ingredients together ... they have a lot of good things going for them."

Bucknell's starting five is built along traditional lines, with 6-foot-11, German-born Chris McNaughton at center, Abe Badmus at point guard, Bettencourt at shooting guard, 6-foot-8 Darren Mastropaolo as the rebounding forward and 6-3 Charles Lee of Gaithersburg as the swingman.

For Flannery, getting his players to slow things down on the court was sometimes a lot easier than slowing the tempo of his own life.

Last season, during a game against Army, while his team was in the midst of an 11-game winning streak, Flannery left at halftime. He stayed away for four more contests - a little over a couple of weeks - while he received counseling.

"I don't know what burnout means, but if it means you get to the point where you're not having fun, where you're overanalyzing every little thing that happens, where the rest of your life and your family is being affected, that happened to me," Flannery said.

"When I got away from it and started talking about it, I realized there are things I should have talked about a long time ago."

As Villanova's Wright pointed out, few of Bucknell's players have aspirations of playing professionally, although McNaughton would be a good candidate for European leagues. And not only do most graduate, but in style.

Last semester, McNaughton, an electrical engineering major who leads the team in scoring with 15.6 points a game, had a 3.5 grade-point average. The team's next two highest scorers, Bettencourt, a history major who hopes to teach, and Lee, a business major, both had a 3.4 GPA.

This year, now that Bucknell is no longer just another anonymous, mid-major basketball program, the Bison's long trek through the Patriot League regular season and ultimately the playoffs, which will determine the conference's representative in the NCAA tournament, will take on a different hue.

Bettencourt said the way to handle added pressure is to keep a tight, internal focus.

"One of our mottos is that we play for each other," the guard said. "The attention from everybody else, well that stuff is great and we'll [enjoy] it, but we're the ones who have worked hard to get here and we're just going to keep fighting hard no matter what."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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