LEWISBURG — In the spring of 2008, Dave Paulsen was hired to put his stamp on Bucknell University basketball.
He had spent the previous eight seasons at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he won a Division III national championship and led his team to a runner-up finish while twice being named coach of the year.
At Bucknell, Paulsen succeeded long-time coach Pat Flannery, who abruptly retired after leading the Bison to 234 victories and a pair of NCAA tournaments.
Paulsen went 7-23 in his first season, and Bucknell’s .233 winning percentage was the school’s worst since 1971-72.
He quickly reversed the Bison’s fortunes, putting together a stellar recruiting class that included 6-foot-11 center/forward Mike Muscala, 6-7 forward Joe Willman and 6-2 shooting guard Bryson Johnson.
Now seniors, the trio have been nothing short of outstanding. All three have blossomed into 1,000-point scorers and All-Patriot League players.
Muscala, a Minnesota native who NBA scouts and general managers have on speed dial, recorded his nation-leading 22nd double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds and was named Patriot League MVP for the second time in Wednesday’s 64-56 win over Lafayette in the tournament championship game.
Willman added 14 points and eight boards and was named to the all-tournament team as Bucknell improved to 28-5 following the record-setting win in front of 3,645 fans in the cozy confines of Sojka Pavilion.
“They really had a target on their backs and they answered every challenge,” Paulsen said. “This group has never had a bad day of practice. Their focus level, their energy level and their unselfishness has just been terrific.
“We really set out to become a great defensive team, and at times, it made us not as pretty to watch offensively as we’d like, but we felt that would help us win a championship. These guys really bought into it.”
Paulsen, 48, has done a masterful job, too. After collecting just 21 wins his first two seasons, he has won 78 games the past three years.
Next up for the veteran coach, a one-time Michigan graduate assistant, and his crew is Selection Sunday. The Bison, one of 68 teams in the tournament, will learn their first-round NCAA opponent tonight.
Bucknell won first-round games in 2005 against Kansas and ’06 against Arkansas under Flannery.
In 2011, Paulsen’s third season, Bucknell also beat Lafayette on its home floor in the Patriot League title game to reach the NCAA tournament after starting the year 2-6.
“We’re thrilled,” Paulsen said in reference to returning to the NCAA tournament after going 1-1 in the less glamorous National Invitation Tournament a year ago. “I know personally, I’m numb.”
For the record, Paulsen’s Bucknell team was blitzed 81-52 by eventual national champion Connecticut two years ago at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
In 2012, the Bison lost to Lehigh and star guard C.J. McCollum in the conference championship game at home. The Mountain Hawks went on to upset Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament before losing to Xavier.
But McCollum, considered by many to have first-round NBA draft potential, suffered a season-ending broken foot in January. That made the path back to the NCAA tournament a bit easier for the Bison.
“I remember leaving the locker room (after the Patriot League championship loss) last year frustrated,” Muscala said. “This is what we’ve worked for all summer. I know we’ve prepared for this game for a year. … But we’re here now and it’s all good.”
Bucknell is 2-5 overall in NCAA tournament appearances since 1987. In addition to losing to UConn, the Bison also have lost to tradition-rich programs such as Memphis, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Georgetown.
“I wish Bucknell the best,” Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon said. “I hope they win a couple games.”
Muscala has been the driving force behind Bucknell’s success. He has been nearly unstoppable this season, although Penn State did hold him to 10 points and four shots in a 60-57 victory in November at the Bryce Jordan Center.
This past week, Muscala broke the Bison’s single-season scoring record. He has 628 career points and is an excellent outside 3-point shooter for a big man. He also became the seventh player in league history to be named to the all-tournament team three times and is the third two-time Patriot League MVP.
Surprisingly, Muscala only had two scholarship Division I offers from North Dakota State and South Dakota until Paulsen, with the aid of one of his former assistant’s from Williams College, and Bucknell entered the scene four years ago.
He eventually visited Bucknell’s campus and town of 5,600 residents, located 55 miles east of Penn State. He committed to Bucknell a little more than two months after Paulsen was hired.
“It just seemed like the right fit in terms of not only basketball, but the community, the fan support,” Muscala told a reporter last month. “And it seemed like a family with the coaches.
“I also wanted to get a good education. That was very important to me. When it came down to (the decision), I couldn’t really explain it, but I knew Bucknell was the right fit for me.”
Musala’s next step very well could be the NBA.
Ron Musselman is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter@ronmusselman8.