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Team Profile: 2006 BracketBuster Preview: Bucknell at Northern Iowa

by Matthew Stevens | February 11th, 2006

This game epitomizes the entire media-created BracketBuster event. The fans know it, the Selection Committee knows it, Bristol knows it.

“It’s two of the premier mid-major teams going at it,” UNI’s Ben Jacobson told the Cedar Falls Courier. “A lot of eyes will be on this game.”

It almost seems like these two programs were destined to play one another on a big stage. Northern Iowa athletic director Rick Hartzell served as A.D. at Bucknell for 11 years before coming to UNI, and hired both head coaches who will roam the sidelines Saturday.

“It’s a good game for us, it’s a good game for Bucknell,” Hartzell said, “And it’s a good game nationally for TV.”

UNI’s pep band, while wearing orange and black t-shirts, played for the 14th seeded Bucknell in last year’s NCAA Tournament upset of third-seed Kansas, because the school of 3,500 in Lewisburg, Pa., couldn’t muster enough financial support to send its own band to the Oklahoma City regional. The two schools used the same practice facility, and had UNI beaten Wisconsin in the opening round, they would have met for a berth into the Sweet 16.

Neither program is overwhelmed by the exposure. Northern Iowa and Bucknell have both worn the glass slipper and proved that it fits them both. Neither seems to be taking this made-for-TV non-conference game in the middle of February all that seriously.

“We haven’t even mentioned that,” Bucknell head coach Pat Flannery told the hometown Daily Item early this week. “It was fit into our season, but it’s in the middle of our Patriot League schedule. Right now, the league is most important.”

Bucknell hasn’t lost in over a month in a half, reeling off 13 straight Patriot League victories since its Jan. 2 blowout loss to Duke in Cameron. In fact, two-thirds of the Bison’s losses have come at the hands of potential number one seeds (84-50 at Duke, 79-60 vs. Villanova). To say the Cinderella darlings of last year’s Dance are cruising is an understatement. But last weekend, Bucknell picked up two motivating factors that Flannery will no doubt put to good use.

The first is the film of BU’s come-from-behind victory on ESPN at Holy Cross. The Bison rallied from 15 points down to win 57-52 against the Crusaders, due in large part to the 24 points scored by senior guard Charles Lee.

The next day it was announced that for the first time in the history of the Bucknell program, the Bison would be ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 poll.

“These guys hear and read a lot of stuff (so) I congratulated the team at practice (Tuesday). They’ve worked extremely hard,” Flannery said. “Then, I reminded them that they had 10 turnovers in the first half Saturday (at Holy Cross).”

Flannery joked about the honor, saying it meant more to him as a Bucknell alumnus than a basketball coach. “I’m not a media guy,” Flannery said. “I can check my e-mail and go on the internet to check the weather. That’s about it.”

His job now is to make sure his squad is not affected by the extra attention, and has he calls it
“the new number in front of our name.”

I told the team they can either embrace the rankings or get cocky,” Flannery added. “I told them they haven’t been (cocky) all year. They have stayed focused on the task at hand.”

Bucknell has a trio of veteran scorers that lead the team, starting with the big German in the pivot, Chris McNaughton. The 6’11″ center and preseason Patriot League Player of the Year is the inside force that settles this team down early and allows for its pair of perimeter shooters to get open looks from beyond the arc.

Those shooters make up arguably he best backcourt in mid-major college basketball this season: seniors Kevin Bettencourt and the aforementioned Charles Lee. The two combo guards excel at either the point or the shooting guard spot, and combine for over 24 points per game and 57% of the Bison’s made threes on the year.

McNaughton was strategically taken out of his normal flow by Holy Cross, as the Crusaders double-teamed him with a quicker player. His reaction time on spinning away or passing out of the trap was just a notch slow, as he scored just eight points in 31 minutes against Holy Cross. In November, Flannery expected this type of defense from Patriot League teams, but felt that non-conference teams would try to man up on him early.

“He knows the league focuses on him nonstop, but when we played in the NCAA’s and non-conference, he excels because they play him man,” Flannery said.

The X-factor for the Bison is a sharp-shooting freshman from Yardley, Penn., named Jason Vigotsky. The 6-2 guard is shooting 60 percent (26 of 43) from three and has been a tiny surprise–Flannery likes to let freshmen adjust socially, academically and basketball-ically to life in the Patroit League before giving them major minutes. If Flannery is honest with himself and his team, he knows how important this win would be in order to justify a single-digit seed come March.

The UNI Dome will be rocking and rolling, simply because folks throughout Cedar Falls know this is the point that the Panthers squad will either rebound with a late run in the loaded Missouri Valley Conference, or fall out of an at-large NCAA berth altogether.

“(Bucknell is) not going to be intimidated coming into the UNI-Dome to play,” Northern Iowa head coach Greg McDermott said, “because they’ve played in places like that.”

One thing is for sure, this game has the potential to be a harbinger for the remainder of UNI’s season .

“It’s a game that can definitely impact what happens on Selection Sunday,” McDermott said. “If we both continue to play well, this is a big-time seeding game in my mind.”

The Panthers have lost three of their last five MVC games, including two on their home floor and one road defeat to lowly Indiana State.

“It’s a long season, and during the course of the season there’s not many teams in the country that cruise along for 30 games and don’t have any bumps in the road,” McDermott said in the post game press conference. “We’re in a little bit of a gully right now.”

The inconsistency in the offense is due in large measure to the injury of senior guard Erik Crawford and his 10 points per game. The transfer from Bowling Green and last season’s Honorable Mention All-MVC selection has been scratched for every game in February and only got 10 minutes at Indiana State due to a broken bone in his foot. His injury and the Panthers’ subsequent poor play may be something the Selection Committee investigates before holding UNI’s recent slump against them on Selection Sunday.

Expect a cleanly played game. Northern Iowa’s veteran leadership includes Crawford, senior sharpshooter Ben Jacobsen and junior post player Grant Stout. Every member of this trio averages at least 10 points per game, shoots at least 42 percent from the field, and together account for 70 percent of the Panthers’ offense.

“We as seniors have to tell the guys to keep their heads up,” Jacobsen said after a 66-63 loss at home to Missouri State. “Our next few games are not going to be a cake walk.”

Stout will get the demanding assignment of guarding McNaughton in the paint, where he will be giving up three inches and nearly 40 pounds to the Bison’s inner beast. Given that UNI owns two non-conference wins over power conference leaders (at LSU and vs. Iowa), the Panthers would seem to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but no one (including McDermott) would argue a third non-conference victory against a top 50 RPI opponent would give this squad some breathing room heading into Arch Madness.

One key to Saturday morning’s game will be tempo, as the Panthers are 12-0 when they score more than 70 points in a game. Bucknell will try to dump into McNaughton early to set up its three-point shot, as UNI will forced to double down. A Bison three-point barrage would certainly quiet the UNI-Dome crowd. Flannery’s troops worked this strategy to perfection early and then hung on to upset Syracuse at the Carrier Dome earlier this year.

The scare at Holy Cross should serve as a great eye-opener for Bucknell, and Flannery’s “we-don’t-care” attitude is a fairly transparent attempt simply to play possum. The Bison want to disprove the doubters of their 13-game win streak against “inferior competition.” Expect All-Conference performer Ben Jacobson to break out of his recent shooting funk, and for the Panthers to ride the emotion of the crowd. In the end, Bucknell will dominate the paint, win the turnover margin, and play the game at their pace. Free throws could be the difference in an at-large bid-sealing win for the Bison.

Prediction: Bucknell 67, Northern Iowa 63

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