American (8-6, 2-1 PL) begins its toughest two-game stretch of Patriot League play when it plays at Bucknell (8-7, 2-1) Saturday at 12pm. In advance of the big game, we asked Bison play-by-play man Doug Birdsong a handful of quick-hitters about a Bucknell team that will look very different to AU fans than the previous several versions. Huge thanks to Doug for making the time to answer our questions!
Why am I a smart man when it comes to still picking Bucknell as the favorite for this year's PL title?
Doug: I would say that because they have a guy like Kimbal Mackenzie on their team who just refuses to let the Bison lose a championship. He is one of the best leaders Bucknell has ever known and he just wills this team when it is at its lowest (like the five times the Bison have had to battle back from double-digit deficits to win games this year). Also, because pound-for-pound, Bucknell has as much experience as any team in the league and as much talent. The starters know what it takes to win regular season and postseason titles in the league.
Conversely, why is it not such a smart pick, and what can AU expose on Saturday?
Doug: Why it is not such a smart pick is because Bucknell has had a tendency to fall behind by double-digit points (12 of its 15 games) this year! While they have won five of those, they have also lost seven others! If that trend continues, it is a recipe for an uneven won-loss record (roller-coaster type season) and makes it extremely difficult to win three games in a row in the PL Tournament. And, while the Bison DO have lots of experience back from back-to-back title-winning teams, most of that experience is facing new roles — either in position changes or in expectations.
As for what AU can do to expose Bucknell on Saturday, quite simply, Sa'eed Nelson, as well as overall outstanding team play by the Eagles! Bucknell's coaches think Nelson could well be the best one-on-one player in the league (and that is saying a lot considering how many other GREAT one-on-one players are in the league this year), so he alone can break down the Bison defense. Couple that with the way (Sam) Iorio is playing and having (Mark) Gasperini back in the lineup, and there is a LOT that American can expose in Bucknell, and every other league team.
What's the Bison's interior defense like without Nana Foulland this year? Outside of Sestina and Bruce Moore, what do the Bison look like in the frontcourt?
The biggest question mark (in my mind) heading into this season was going to be the rim protection defense for the Bison. In the past four years, if a guard or forward made a mistake defensively, the opposing team still had to find a way around Foulland. That is no longer the case and I think it has shown in opposing team's FG % as well as in rebounding. Backup center, Paul Newman has been huge defensively for Bucknell (second in the league in blocked shots), but he is a backup and obviously doesn't receive starter's minutes, so he will only be able to protect the rim so long during a game. Nate Sestina is still working hard to become a better low-post offensive and defensive player, and Bruce Moore is slowly starting to adjust to his role of playing the power forward position as opposed to the small forward spot. That means that he is also learning more about posting up offensively and crashing the glass on both ends of the floor.
The biggest surprise in the Bucknell frontcourt has been sophomore John Meeks. From the first time I saw him (playing pickup with the guys his freshman year), I could tell that he had a knack for finding the ball and making plays with the ball. He is likely the most physical frontcourt player that Bucknell has and he also has an unbelievably sweet shot. His biggest issue has been health. He missed the first handful of games this year with various leg injuries and is not really near 100% physically, so stamina can be a problem. However, he was forced (due to foul trouble with Bruce) to play 17minutes against Colgate and played really well.
Who's another player maybe not on our radar who could make a big impact Saturday?
Doug: There are a few players who most people would not think much about that could play a major role in the game on Saturday (and throughout the season). Senior Nate Jones (when healthy) has the ability to hit the 3 (37%), to drive and to provide good defense. He has had some leg issues, but is battling through them. Freshman Andrew Funk will be a GREAT player in the league someday and he has the ability to show that greatness in any game. He can shoot lights out (although he has struggled some in games) and he can also drive (he had a career high 11-points in the first half alone against UNLV). He is still learning to play defense, but he has good anticipation, long arms and moves well. Freshman Walter Ellis is also a guy who, if he gets his stroke back, can swing the momentum of a game with his shooting. He hit a three pointer on his first career shot (a come-from-behind win at St. Bonaventure) and is really athletic. His dad is former Notre Dame/NBA star, and now ESPN commentator, LaPhonso Ellis. I already mentioned Meeks, and, of course, Paul Newman is a MUCH different player than Nate Sestina, offensively and defensively and proved when Sestina missed two games with an injury that he can score (double figures in both of those games) as well as defend.
What makes this Bison team so difficult to defend?
The thing that makes Bucknell so tough to defend is that literally everybody on the floor (starters) can hit a 3-pointer. If they're on (UNLV and a few other games), they have the potential to just drop one haymaker after another until the other team just can't compete. Of course, as with any team which relies on the jumper, if it is not falling, the team has likely been affected more than the last two years in scoring because they don't have a Stephen Brown driving, a Zach Thomas doing what Zach Thomas does best and a Nana Foulland, one of the best low-post players in PL history.