Bison Ready to Roam in 2005-2006
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by Matthew Stevens
As the Bucknell Bison approach their 2005 season, excitement is buzzing around a season that could be even more magical than the previous one. One thing is for sure about the defending Patriot League champion program, if they make back-to-back, they’ll bring the band.
“I think from the president, through everyone at this university and campus, will make sure the band is there wherever they may send us,” Head Coach Pat Flannery said. “We got a long way and a lot of things to do that.” At least Flannery knows that to dance in March, you have to bring the music.
Last season, the Bison won their first Patriot League title in school history, led by head coach Flannery, who’s entering his 11 th season on the bench. When the NCAA Tournament Committee sent them to play Kansas in Oklahoma City ( 1314 miles from its campus), the pep band decided to go on its Spring Break. The Bison got the regionally based crowd to turn toward the orange and blue during its shocking 64-63 upset of the 3 rd-seeded Jayhawks with the help of Northern Iowa’s band.
"It would be a coach to say that we are over the Kansas [win]," said Flannery after taking the Bison to the first NCAA Tournament victory in program and league history. "You’re talking about over 100 years of basketball. It was a magical time and something we will always remember.”
At that point, the athletic department had an idea. Bucknell worked a handshake deal with Oklahoma State’s band to play in its second round contest with the Wisconsin Badgers. So, with the Bison remarkably up by one with nine minutes to play, there was the OSU band in Bucknell t-shirts playing the Bison fight song they’d just learned only hours before game time. The times they were changing.
“It shocked me,” Bucknell senior guard Charles Lee said of the crowd's "B-I-S-O-N'' chant during a timeout at the post-game press conference. "It really felt good to have fans behind us.”
Every goal and experience Bucknell met last season was new. Now Flannery intends to introduce one more innovative task during Bucknell’s first pre-season practice – repeat. Five teams have repeated as Patriot League Tournament champions, including Holy Cross from 2000-03, but Bucknell never has.
"There are too many good teams on our schedule, and we know about Holy Cross,” Flannery said. “And our opener at Rider—nobody knows how tough it is unless you’re on the East Coast.”
The Bison return all five starters and 12 of 13 lettermen from last year's 23-10 squad. Bucknell will be led by Patriot League Preseason Player of the Year Chris McNaughton and senior co-captains Charles Lee and Kevin Bettencourt.
“The word I have used a lot with them since the end of last year is ‘entitlement,’” says Flannery. “Nobody has given us anything, and we recognize that we have to go out and earn everything that comes our way. We are not entitled to anything.”
McNaughton, the 6-11 center from Germany, earned hero status after hitting perhaps the biggest shot in Bucknell basketball history, the game-winner against Kansas with less than two seconds left. The junior that has developed into one of the elite big men on the East Coast is a prototypical back-to-the-basket center, but does possess good mobility for his size and has NBA scouts drooling over his upside, as he’s added range on his jump shot over the summer.
“He gets attention nobody else in the league gets, but he has to play through that,” Flannery said. “That’s the one thing we’ve worked all preseason with him on, because only in the tournament was when teams wanted to play him straight up.”
Bettencourt and Lee may be the best backcourt duo you’ve never heard of. Bettencourt was selected as team co-captain for the second straight year and is one of the league's top scorers. The senior from Peabody, Mass., is so dangerous because he is the Bison’s most lethal long-range shooter.
“Kevin plays with so much desire,” says Flannery. “Sometimes he can be too hard on himself, but that’s a part of being with an athletic family.”
In only three seasons at Bucknell, he is already the top all-time 3-point shooter with 215 made, and he has started 90 of a possible 91 games (the only non-start being on senior day as a freshman because of a policy that every senior starts that game).
Lee is the Bison’s go-to-guy in critical situations. The 2005 Patriot League Tournament MVP hit a number of late-game pressure shots last season including a game-tying 3-pointer with 0:15 left in regulation in an overtime win at Yale, the game-winning jumper with .9 seconds left in a 76-74 win over Niagara and two free-throws with 2.3 seconds left to ice a 69-66 upset of No. 7 Pittsburgh. Flannery rested Lee during Bucknell’s season-opening 91-53 exhibition win Saturday over Division II Lock Haven because he is nursing a minor injury, but Lee is expected to be fully healthy for the season opener at Rider.
“Charles has a desire and passion to play basketball beyond this year,” Flannery said. “He will be ready physically.”
After its remarkable success, the Bison got some immediate recruiting help in freshman Jason Vegotsky. The native of Yardley, Pa., averaged 21 points per game as a senior at Pennsbury High School and broke the school’s all-time scoring record. The 6-2 guard can fill it up quickly from anywhere on the floor and scored 19 points in his first career game at Bucknell during the exhibition win.
“The first semester is very difficult for freshmen to get adjusted,” Flannery said. “We try to not put too much pressure on them because they’re new student athletes.”
The Bison received a single vote in the USA TODAY/ESPN Coaches' Poll, and they are ranked eighth in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Poll. The attention Bucknell has received is a far cry from the humble beginnings that the small, quiet campus is used to but Flannery says the question of how he plans on dealing with the public eye is a good problem to have.
“It's just incredible the amount of attention that we've gotten," Flannery told the Lebanon Daily News. "The hardest thing is to keep our kids' feet on the ground. But at the same time, our chests ought to be out, and we ought to be proud of what we did. I'm excited about getting started [on this season].”
Bucknell officially completed the job of putting its program on the map with its schedule. Last season, getting a high-profile major school to come to Sojka Pavilion (where a mural now hangs dedicated to last year’s team) was improbable. In 2005, it is reality, as the Bison host St. Joseph’s and 4 th-ranked Villanova in its non conference slate that also includes trips to DePaul, No. 16 Syracuse, and top-ranked Duke.
“I really want to thank those coaches for agreeing to play us because it’s so big for us,” Flannery said. “We’ve always played a competitive schedule that helps us come tournament time.”
One year after its most improbable season, Bucknell already sold out Midnight Madness, an intersquad game and its first exhibition game, something they’d never done before. The times they are changing but the attitude stays the same.
“I have a group of kids that realize this is a new season,” Flannery said. “We may not have the same amount of wins but I’ve tried to maintain some perspective in the program.”