Bison have few questions

There are not a lot of questions to be answered about Bucknell entering the 2005-2006 season. With the entire starting lineup and eight of the first nine guys in last year’s rotation back, the Bison are pretty much a known quantity.

Abe Badmus will distribute the ball and play incredible defense at the point. Kevin Bettencourt and Charles Lee are dangerous wings who can shoot the three or take the ball to the hole. Chris McNaughton is unstoppable one-on-one in the post. John Griffin can play either guard spot and is potentially as good a scorer as Bettencourt. And it almost goes without saying that Bucknell will play tough defense.

About the only thing that will look different in the early going this season will be the rotation at power forward, where Bison coach Pat Flannery will need to make a tweak or two to compensate for the loss of Chris Niesz, the only senior on last year’s squad.

The casual observer might look at last year’s stats and think replacing Niesz should be no big deal. Statistically, that might be right. With the talent on the floor, Bucknell should have no problem finding someone to score Niesz’s 3.4 points per game, or to grab the 2 rebounds he averaged.

Folks who watched the Bison’s dream season unfold last year know different, though. They saw how Niesz’s emergence at the four helped solidify a Bison lineup that was shaken by the loss of starter John Clark, whose midseason injury woes coincided with the swoon that followed an early 11-game win streak.

With Clark benched with a bad foot, freshman Darren Mastropaolo was forced into the starting lineup. Mastropaolo was a capable replacement on defense and on the glass, but his lack of offensive range made it easy for teams to double and even triple team McNaughton down low.

Niesz, though, gave Bucknell an option with three-point range on his jumper. He also became a steadying senior influence down the stretch. To many, his three-pointer to beat Colgate at the buzzer of the Bison’s regular season finale was the spark that started the Bucknell postseason fire and his play in the league and NCAA tournament games helped fan those flames.

With three seniors, including Bettencourt—who has started since he set foot in Lewisburg – and Lee—who has started the past two seasons, the replacing Niesz’s leadership should not be a problem. Filling his minutes, though, might be more of a challenge.

That is not to say the Bison do not have players ready to step into Niesz’s shoes. The challenge for Pat Flannery will be more a matter of how to fit the pieces together to solve the power forward puzzle.

Mastropaolo will be the starter, that much is a given. The best post defender on the team, the 6-8 sophomore from Maine has worked hard on improving his offensive game in the offseason.

“He really recognizes, and did all summer, that his range is critical in keeping people honest. His 15-16 footer in the high post, he is shooting with confidence. His range has increased,” said Flannery.

After Mastropaolo, the rotation at the four is going to depend on a number of factors.

Donald Brown, a springy 6-6 junior is probably the most athletic front court player on the roster. Known to television viewers across the country as the guy popping his jersey after the Bison upset Kansas, Brown has started eight games in each of his two seasons in Lewisburg and averaged better than 15 minutes per game last season. Brown could start for a lot of teams in the league, but Flannery said last year that Brown seems to respond better when he comes off the bench.

Brown has a way of injecting some energy into the Bison when he enters the game and an ability to put the ball in the whole that might not be evident from his 3.4 ppg average of a year ago. More telling are the numbers he put up as a freshman, when he reached double figures nine times. He was a key player in the postseason for Bucknell, averaging 6 rebounds per game in the Patriot League and NCAA Tournaments.

With his ability to beat people off the dribble, Brown offers a change of pace when he replaces Mastropaolo. It also will help stretch the floor and keep people from sagging on McNaughton.

“Donald Brown is a tough as anybody to keep in front of you. Whoever is going to play him if he is in that four spot, we need to do things to get him isolated so he can get by them,” Flannery said.

Another option will be 6-7, 232-pound sophomore Andrew Morrison. Morrison has opened eyes in the preseason with his Niesz-like range and his willingness to do the dirty work under the basket.

“He can step out and shoot the ball and he bangs with the best of them,” said Lee.

“We do some things with Donald that we don’t do with Andrew and we do some things with Andrew that we don’t do with Donald. We will use the abilities they have. It might be somebody screening. It might be somebody penetrating. It might be somebody taking pressure off of one of our handlers. They are all a little bit different. We will keep using those guys according to the way they play,” Flannery said.

Yet another option at the four this season will be McNaughton, who is comfortable facing the basket and in the high post and has a nice touch on his jumper from about 15 feet in. Using McNaughton at the four, with 6-7, 264-pound senior bruiser Tarik Viaer-McClymont at the five is a combination Flannery said the Bison might employ a lot, especially early in the season against non-conference foes whose size up front presents matchup problems.

Talk to the Bison players and they will tell you Viaer-McClymont is an incredible talent in practice and in pickup games, where he is always one of the first guys chosen. Viaer-McClymont’s problem has been translating that ability into being confident and comfortable when the lights come on.

As if the Bison don’t have enough options in the frontcourt, Clark, who had surgery on his injured foot in August, is expected to be back in action by the second semester. With that kind of depth, Flannery will be under no pressure to rush 6-11 freshman Josh Linthicum into the mix.

That suits Flannery, who prefers to bring freshmen along slowly, especially in the first semester, just fine.

“Josh is going to be a kid that is going to be a force here. But they all have to do their thing academically and socially and get adjusted. I don’t want to put more pressure on them, especially when I have a team that has a lot of veterans,” Flannery.

That philosophy likely applies to the two other freshmen on the roster, off guard Jason Vegotsky and point Justin Castleberry. Vegotsky has shown an ability to fill it up from anywhere on the floor in the preseason and Flannery has been impressed by Castleberry’s poise and knowledge of the game at the point.

Castleberry might be the freshman who will see the most action early, since using him to backup Badmus would allow Griffin to concentrate on his more natural role as a shooter. Finding minutes might be tougher for Vegotsky, given the talent ahead of him in the Bison backcourt.

For some teams, finding enough minutes to go around might be a problem.

Lee said not for Bucknell.

“There is definitely a lot of talent on this team and 200 minutes is not a lot. But we’re a tight knit group. We always talk about what is going on and everybody knows their role on the team,” Lee said.

A bigger problem might be the schedule. Bucknell’s non-conference slate might be the toughest a Patriot League team has ever taken on, with perennial powers like Syracuse, Duke, Villanova, Saint Joe’s and DePaul, along with a trip to the Cable Car Classic where they will face Boston University and either Santa Clara or US Riverside. Niagara won 20 games and went to the Big Dance last year. Rider was the regular season champ in its league last year and some folks have picked Cornell as the darkhorse in the Ivy League.

Saidf Lee, “Everybody looks at DePaul, Syracuse, Villanova, Saint Joe’s and Duke. But we have a very difficult schedule with Cornell and Niagara and Rider, too. We’re not looking past anybody.”

Bucknell schedule
Bucknell roster

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