Bucknell-Villanova preview

Bucknell at No. 25 Villanova, 7:30 p.m.: Let's see: Bucknell beat Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh beat Syracuse and Syracuse beat Villanova.

If only things worked that way.

This is not the biggest game of the season for Bucknell. That will come on the second Friday in March, it it comes at all. But this could be one of the biggest games of the season for the Patriot League.

An upset win by the Bison over another ranked team from the Big East, and it would be awfully tough not to talk of the Patriot as a two-bid league if Bucknell and Holy Cross meet in the conference final, regardless of which team wins.

Ah, to dream.

Here's your wake-up call: This is not like the game against Pittsburgh. And basketball is more rock-paper-scissors than dominos. Things don't fall neat and orderly, A beats B, B beat C, A thus would beat C.

For starters, there will be no catching Villanova sleeping or looking past Bucknell, the way Pittsburgh might have been. If Bucknell's wins over Pittsburgh and 'Nova's Big 5 rival Saint Joes did not make sure of that, Villanova's loss Saturday to Syracuse did.

The Wildcats got thumped by the Orange, 90-75, on real national TV (CBS, not some backyard satellite network). The Cats' egos are bruised and they will be looking to use Bucknell as oinment.

That does not mean we expect a blowout. Bucknell's egos ought to be feeling a little tender these days, too. A month ago they were the media darlings, eating Cold Pizza for breakfast and reading about themselves on ESPN.com Now, after a little mid-season swoon on the road, they feel like a Rodney Dangerfield punchline. These days, everybody is talking about Holy Cross, a team that Bucknell handled with ease when they met in Lewisburg at the start of conference play.

A little healthy disrespect can be a powerful motivator. And Bucknell is talented enough to upset Villanova if the stars align just right. If Kevin Bettencourt is en fuego from the three-point arc. If John Griffin comes off the bench and hits a couple threes, too. If Chris McNaughton stays out of foul trouble. If Villanova's leading scorer, Allan Ray, has an off night shooting the three (he averages 17.4 ppg and is a 43.5 percent shooter from the arc). If all that, and more, breaks Bucknell's way, the Bison could win.

Matter of fact, we're going to be so bold as to make a prediction. Bucknell over Villanova -- next year, when the Wildcats visit Sojka for their part of the two-for-one deal.

That is the reality of the situation. For all the hype and excitement this Bucknell team has generated this season, it really is at least a year away. Bucknell's roster includes only one senior. There are four juniors, three of which play, two that start. The rest of the rotation is sophomores and freshmen. Only the sophomores and freshmen are scholarship kids.

There has been speculation that Bucknell's midseason slump was because of Pat Flannery's absence. And no doubt that played a role. But the bigger cause was more likely a simple lack of maturity. By next season, the kiddie corps will have been there, done that. They will be able to handle the successes they are bound to have if they stay healthy and don't flunk out.

You have to think Flannery himself was thinking that when he set up this year's ambitious schedule with all his twofers. Next season some of those people are coming to Lewisburg, where the welcome is certain to be anything but hospitable.

That is next year, though. Villanova is tonight. Even with Jason Fraser playing with a broken hand, these Wildcats are going to be a lot for Bucknell to handle.

For starters, Ray has incredible range. He shoots three like others shoot layups. The NBA line is a peep shot for him. That will really stretch Bucknell's matchup zone. If he gets hot, the Bison will be forced to go man, and then Curtis Sumpter becomes a huge matchup problem. Who does Bucknell have that can guard a 6-7 kid who can step out and shoot the three like Sumpter. American's Matej Cresnik is that kind of player, only not nearly as good, and he gave Bucknell fits in D.C.

Legs will also be a concern for Bucknell, playing its thrid game in five days.

Bucknell does have a couple things going for it. Villanova has only had one day of practice to prepare for this game. Unlike conference foes, who know the patterns the Bison run in the halfcourt, Villanova will not be nearly as familiar.

Likewise, the Wildcats will not have had a lot of time to prepare for Bucknell's matchup, which can give opponents fits.

In non-conference games, opponents have not tended to double on McNaughton the way Patriot League teams do. The 6-11 sophomore has shown that he can hold his own offensively against some pretty good big men.

So can Bucknell win this game? Well, sure, anything can happen. It is not as unrealistic a thought as it might have seemed when the schedule was announced.

But don't go visit your bookie with the mortgage payment in hand.
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