By CHRIS A. COUROGEN
Hoop Time Editor
We went to Emmitsburg with a very different story in mind.
The plan, as we drove down U.S. Route 15 past Gettysburg, was to hop over the Mason Dixon Line, grab some stellar barbecue at a little joint called Chubby’s, then proceed a couple miles further south to gather some stats and anecdotes for a story on the emergence of Bucknell junior point guard Steven Kaspar.
Kaspar, for those who don’t follow the Bison closely, has been the key to Bucknell’s slightly surprising start. The 6-3 Tennessean served notice in a season-opening loss at Stanford, keeping the Bison in the game until the end with his 12-point, 9-assist showing. He carried them past Penn State, with a career-high 25 points.
After averaging just over 2 points per game through his first two seasons, Kaspar came into Bucknell’s 69-64 loss at Mount Saint Mary’s averaging 12 points and 6.4 assists per game. It was the kind of play Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen had expected since Kaspar arrived in Lewis burg.
It had been longer than Paulsen expected in coming, but Kaspar, it seemed, had finally arrived.
That story, though, was scuttled, at least for now, by a night in which Kaspar was pretty much a non-factor.
Kaspar was just 2-for-9 from the floor against the Mounts. All seven of his misses were layups. He managed just 3 assists and turned it over twice. On defense, he was just one of a number of Bison who seemed to spend the night unable to catch up with Mount Saint Mary’s players as they came off screens and headed to the rim, or closing out a second or two too late on Mount jump shooters.
To be fair, it was far from Kaspar’s fault that Bucknell came up short. Leading scorer Cameron Ayers, saddled with early foul trouble, finished with just 5 points on 2-of-7 shooting. Three of those missed shots were layups. It was Ayers’ first game this season that he did not score in double figures.
“(Kaspar) has been playing great. Obviously Cam has been playing great, too. Neither one of those guys played well tonight,” said Paulsen.
They were not alone. As a team Bucknell missed 18 layups. In a game decided by 5 points, that is pretty significant.
“We really struggled. We got to the rim and we missed shots,” Paulsen said.
All told, Bucknell went 25 of 54 (46.3 percent) from the field. That doesn’t match up to the torrid 51.4 percent Bucknell has been shooting as a team in the early part of the season. But it’s not to shabby, either. Last year’s Patriot League championship team shot 45.3 percent from the field on the season.
“That is not a recipe for winning on the road – outshooting teams. That is not going to work,” said Paulsen. “We just need to get better defensively.”
But that team had 6-11 shot-blocker Mike Muscala anchoring the defense, there to erase mistakes if guys slipped past a Bison defender. this team doesn’t have an eraser. The Mount shot better than 65 percent for most of the game, building a lead that reached 12 points before Bucknell battled back to keep it close.
The Bison did a decent job of limiting Mount’s vaunted three-point bomb squad (5-of-17, 29.4 percent), but paid for it by getting repeatedly beaten off the bounce for easy looks.
“We had a nearly impossible time stopping them most of the game,”:said Paulsen. “The difference between getting a stop or not is a half-a-step. We were a half-step slow tonight. We need to summon up more toughness to get some stops.”
Keep in mind, Paulsen said after the St. Francis game he knew, despite the early success his team was enjoying, Bucknell needed to improve on defense. Much as he loves having a bunch of guys who can fill it up, Paulsen knows there will be nights when shots are not falling and you need to tough it out on D.
This was not exactly one of those nights, but it certainly was a night when Bucknell was not able to just outshout an opponent. That inability to stop the Mount resulted in a loss to a 1-5 team, albeit a loss that might not look so bad later in the season if the Mount can live up to its preseason billing as an NEC contender.
So were does all this leave Bucknell six games into the season: 3-3, which really is probably as good as even the most optimistic Bison fans might have hoped for. In fact, with Albany expected to be an upper level America East team, and that game on the road, few in the preseason would have picked that as a Bucknell W. And if you say you thought they’d win at Penn State, you are either lying, or an eternal optimist.
“To be honest, to get this deep (in the schedule) without a bad day; this was coming,” said Paulsen honestly.
Paulsen sees the team every day in practice. He knows the difference between its beauty marks and its warts.
“When we play like we can play, we’re pretty good,” he said. “But you cannot consistently be good if you are not a good practice team.”