Deja Vu all over again

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Back to 1993, when things were not as different from today as you might think.

Back in 1993, Clint Eastwood won the Oscar for Best Picture. A 13-year-old boy accused Michael Jackson of hand checking and the Patriot League's regular season champion entered the postseason on a roll, having lost but one game in conference play.

That loss, in the first half of conference play, came on the road and was soundly avenged at home at the end of the regular season, securing the home court throughout the tournament.

Long time fans of the league know the rest of the story, how HC came into Davis Gym and embarrassed Bucknell in front of a packed house and a national television audience. To Holy Cross fans it is the tale of the Crusaders first league title. To Bucknell fans, it is the first of four that got away for a team that has shared more with the Buffalo Bills than a logo over the years.

The roles are reversed this time. In 1993, Bucknell was the team that finished the regular season 13-1 in conference play, with a 112-99 win in Davis Gym avenging an earlier defeat at the Hart Center to give the Bison the homecourt edge for the tournament.

That result does not mean HC will not have a homecourt advantage. In 13 Patriot League games played on a finalist's home court, the home team has a 10-3 mark. The Crusaders went 11-2 in the Hart Center this year, the last loss coming in December, against Vermont. They have won nine straight there since.

That will not intimidate Bucknell, though. The Bison have road wins at Pittsburgh and Saint Joseph's this season, both places that might be even more inhospitable than Worcester.

Those 112 back in '93 points are not the Patriot League record, by the way. That was set the year before when Holy Cross scored 116 in a win over Lehigh. If you are looking for a safe bet on Friday's final, put your money on that mark not being broken.

If the odds are right, you might even bet the two teams combined won't score that many. They didn't in the first meeting, a 59-43 Bucknell win in Lewisburg in the opening game of conference play. And they barely bested that in Holy Cross' 69-54 win in the rematch at the Hart Center.

That the game will be low scoring is about the only prediction that anybody can make with reasonable confidence. Both teams rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense. Holy Cross, ranked fourth, allows 55.7 points per game. Ninth-ranked Bucknell, thanks to two record-setting defensive efforts in the first two rounds of the tournament, comes in allowing 58.5 points per night. Only 11 teams in the nation allow less than 60 points per game.

Predicting Bucknell avenging that 1993 loss by turning the table on a Holy Cross team that became just the third team in league history to go 13-1 in conference play is not as easy.

"It's two teams that are deep, big, strong, physical, aggressive and really put a great emphasis at the defensive end of the court," said American coach Jeff Jones after his Eagles bowed out in the semifinals with a 53-35 loss to Bucknell. "They are tough to play against at that end of the court."

In so many ways the two are mirror images. Like Jones mentioned, both have decent size and a strong bench. Both are 20-win teams with strong RPIs. Both, arguably, are deserving of a bid even if they lose. Neither will likely get one if they don't win.

Both are playing well coming in-- Holy Cross rides a 16-game win streak, Bucknell has won three straight and seems to be past the "hiccups at midseason," as Bucknell coach Pat Flannery calls the stretch where the Bison lost three out of four, costing them a share of the regular season title.

That midseason stretch, which coincided with medical problems that kept their starting four man and the head coach at of action, caused a lot of people to question the Bison. They seem to have answered those questions in the first two rounds.

It is hard to say which problem caused the most trouble. It is easy to argue that Flannery's savvy, along with his fiery presence on the sidelines might have been enough to get Bucknell over the hump in a 4-point loss at Navy. It is harder to argue that he would have made a difference in the 9-point loss at AU and Flannery was back in action when Bucknell lost by three at Lehigh.

John Clark's feet might have been a bigger problem. Clark's feet were hurting since early in the season. They became more than he could keep playing through in that lost weekend in the southern reaches of the league. Clark had three points, but not a single rebound at American. At Navy he had 2 boards, 0 points and 4 fouls in 11 minutes time.

Flannery made the switch in his lineup the next game, starting Darren Mastropaolo in Clark's place. In the last three games, the 6-9 freshman has started to look at home in that role. Against Lafayette he grabbed 9 rebounds. Against American he played tough defense and scored 5 points.

At the same time, former starter and one-time small forward Chris Niesz, has begun to exert himself off the bench, adding an offensive threat to the rotation at the four. The only senior on the Bucknell roster, Niesz won the senior night game against Colgate with a buzzer-beating three-pointer. Against American in the semis, he gave Bucknell a spark with 11 points off the bench.

Donald Brown rounds out the three-headed four monster for Bucknell. He could be a key player in this game. In the first matchup between the two, Brown came off the bench and sparked the Bison with 12 high-energy minutes. At 6-6, with tremendous hops and quickness, Brown, who can slide comfortably between the three and the four, is the one Bucknell player HC does not have a match for.

Brown is too quick for John Hurley and Kevin Hyland, too big and too strong for Greg Kinsey or any of HC's guards. If HC does not keep a body on him every time the ball goes up, Brown could cause havoc on the boards, and rebounds are precious in defensive, possession-oriented games like this should be.

That, by no means puts HC at a disadvantage in the matchup at the four. Hurley is a double-double threat every night. The 6-7 Hurley is deceptively strong, sneaky quick and senior smart. What he lacks in athleticism he makes up for in guile, cunning and hard work. Kevin Hyland is a a 6-8 junior who does all the nitty gritty things off the bench, like solid defense, decent rebounding and the ability to finish now and again on the few opportunities he does get to score.

Ralph Willard has also been known to slide 6-11 senior center Nate Lufkin into the power forward slot alongside 6-10 freshman Tim Clifford, who backs Lufkin at the five. It would not be a surprise to see Willard use that twin towers look at some point in the game.

In the first meeting, Clifford impressed with his ability to use his 260-pound frame to force Bucknell center Chris McNaughton off the block down low. If Clifford can force McNaughton to catch the ball far enough away from the basket to need more than a dribble or two to get there, the HC guards will be able to provide double down help, which would free Lufkin, the school's all-time shotblock leader, to roam the lane to deter penetration.

That also allows HC to pressure the ball, knowing if they get beat, Lufkin has their back.

That is just one of the many chess game scenarios that could play out as the two coaches mix and match at the position that seems least likely to play to a stalemate.

Everywhere else on the floor, the two teams line up very similar personnel. At the point, Bucknell's Abe Badmus, the league's defensive player of the year, and HC's Torey Thomas are two of the best penetrators in the league. The two freshmen they share time with, John Griffin for Bucknell and Holy Cross' Pat Doherty, the league's rookie of the year, are both more of a jumpshooter, preferring the three-pointer from the arc to the dribble drive and one three-point play. All four distribute the ball well.

At the two, Kevin Bettencourt is a streaky, driveway shooter who can go off from the arc at any moment. He is also an outstanding defender, a fact he reminded folks of Sunday by shutting down AU's Andre Ingram, the league's leading scorer. Along with fellow junior Charles Lee, Bettencourt gives Bucknell one of the two best sets of wings in the conference.

The other pair would be Keith Hamilton and Greg Simmons of Holy Cross. Hamilton, the league's player of the year, and Simmons, the sixth man who earned first team all-league honors despite coming off the bench, combined for an average of more than 27 points per game this season. Bettencourt and Lee averaged almost 26 per game.

Hamilton and Bettencourt ranked 1-2 in three-pointers per game. Lee and Simmons were 2-3 in three-point shooting percentage. Hamilton and Simmons had more steals, Lee and Bettencourt were better on the foul line. In rebounding the two tandems are nearly even.

At center, McNaughton and Lufkin are both 6-11 with similar frames. McNaugton is the better scorer, Lufkin the better shotblocker. They both average 4.7 rebounds. They both have been known to get in foul trouble. Matched they are a stalemate. One on the floor for a lot of minutes while the other sits much of the night with foul trouble would be a decided advantage for the team avoiding foul problems.

Yes, Jones was right when he said, "There are some similarities."

Back in our preview to that first game, we concluded by saying:
If you were the betting type, and you could actually find a spread on Patriot League games, you’d probably be smart to take the points. A better bet, though, might be on seeing these two settle things, for this season anyhow, on a Friday afternoon in the second week of March.
That still is pretty much how it looks to us. These are two extremely even teams, probably the best two ever to meet in the league final. And when it is all said and done, the only real difference will be that one team won on that second Friday in March.

Patriot League scoreboards
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(2)Bucknell vs. (1)Holy Cross, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2):
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