Is this Heaven?

Nope, it's Iowa. That's where Bucknell chose to spend its holiday weekend.

They're not out there visiting former B.U. athletics director Rick Hartzell, who now runs the show at his alma mater, Northern Iowa (some may recognize that name, Hartzell is a pretty decent D-I zebra in his spare time). No, the Bison are in Ames for the Iowa State Cyclone Classic.

Realistically, figure the Bison (2-2) to come back east Sunday with the same .500 record they left Lewisburg with. A spilt is likely. But how that split is achieved will be the measure of success on this trip.

A loss in the first round to Stephen F. Austin, then getting a win over Northern Colorado in the early game Saturday night would hardly be a consolation. The Bison already own a lopsided win over the Bears, who have yet to win (0-4) in their second season of Division I play. Splitting that way will not bring a happy plane ride. In fact, the spirit on the plane home is likely to be more upbeat if the Bison are coming off a loss than a win, assuming, of course, that loss is in the final, to Iowa State, with a respectable showing.

Not saying this team is not capable of upsetting a Big 12 squad like the Cyclones. But only a fool would bet the mortgage payment on that likelihood.

In other words, the key to this trip is the first round.

SFA comes in with a 1-1 record, picking up its first win Tuesday night over D-II Concordia-Austin. Tromping on a D-II team is not impressive. But the fact that it was the Lumberjacks’ 31st straight home win is.

Most folks in the east have never heard of Stephen F. Austin, but this is no pushover first-round match for Bucknell. Picked to finish fourth in their conference, the Lumberjacks were 21-9 last year, their second straight 21-win season, making it to the Southland Conference finals before falling to Texas-San Antonio.

Here’s a capsule from the SFA Website

2004-05 OUTLOOK: The Lumberjacks have been picked to finish fourth in the Southland Conference in a preseason poll of conference head coaches and fifth in a poll of conference SIDs. The `Jacks return only two starters from last season's 21-9 club, but also return five other letterwinners from a year ago. Included among those returning letterwinners are four players who appeared in at least 29 games and F Taylor Moore, who started 12 games early last season before sitting out the second half of the season. G Marcus Clark returns for his junior year as a preseason All-Southland Conference pick and will anchor the SFA back court. Clark led the SLC in assist to turnover ratio (2.21:1) and was third on the team with 9.4 points per game. F Hank Rivers started the final 18 games a year ago and closed the year on the rise. The 6-8 senior averaged 10.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game over the final dozen games and closed the year with back-to-back double-doubles in the Southland Conference tournament.

The ‘Jacks, who are facing NCAA recruiting violation allegations, also have three JUCO transfers, including 6-6 forward Anthony Paez, a third-team JUCO All-America last season who has claimed a spot in the SFA starting lineup.

Should Bucknell get past SFA, they should face an injury-riddled Iowa State team that has three starters back from a squad that made it to the NIT semifinals last season. Despite the rash of injuries that have afflicted the Cyclones, they still spanked Drake in their season-opener.

For a Patriot League team to get a win over even a weak Big 12 win would be a major upset. For a still-young Bucknell five to knock off Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum, where the Cyclones have won 84 percent (71-14) of their home games the last five seasons, where they have gone 17-1 in previous Cyclone Challenge games, would be a monumental accomplishment.

Then again, hey, San Jose State kocked off Iowa State in this tournament in 2001. So stranger things have happened. Still, the success or failure of this road trip will be determined in tonight’s first game for the Bison.

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