Until Sunday afternoon, East Lansing residents may have never heard of the small city of Lewisburg, Penn. — known for its “outstanding variety of historic architecture” — let alone could’ve named it as the home of the Bucknell Bison.
With a total student population of 3,660, according to the official Bucknell University website, the Bison measure up as 7.3 percent of Michigan State’s 50,000-plus student body. In comparison, the 2017-18 Izzone student section membership was upwards of 4,000.
Thanks to a 25-9 overall record, a 16-2 Patriot League record, and closing eight-game win streak, the Bison are now paired up against the Spartans in Detroit for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The 14-seed Bison, opening as 14-point underdogs, will take on the 3-seed Spartans at Little Caesars Arena on Friday, with tipoff set for 7:10 p.m. on CBS.
Another comparison: this is Bucknell’s seventh NCAA appearance in program history. Their overall 2-7 record in the tournament is noteworthy, with both wins coming in upset fashion. The biggest and most recent of the two came in 2005, upsetting 3-seed Kansas as a 14-seed, 64-63. Michigan State is now in for the 21st consecutive year under coach Tom Izzo and 32nd overall as a program, with a 64-30 overall tournament record and as many Final Four appearances as Bucknell has games played.
“It’s consistency,” Izzo said in a press conference following the selection show. “That was my goal when I got here.”
As the Spartans look to continue following through on that goal, Bucknell enters with their own version of success.
Since the start of the new calendar year, Bucknell has won 18 of their 20 games, including their second-straight Patriot League Championship under coach Nathan Davis, an 83-54 win over the 2-seeded Colgate Raiders.
Davis is 68-32 through three years at Bucknell, his first head coaching stint. After taking over in 2015, he turned a 17-14 team into 26-9 last season.
Three players were named to the all-tournament team for the Bison:
- Senior guard Stephen Brown (#02), 5-foot-11, 160 pounds
- 14.9 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.2 spg, 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio
- Senior center Nana Foulland (#20), 6-foot-10, 235 pounds
- 15.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 60-percent from the field
- Senior forward Zach Thomas (#23), 6-foot-7, 228 pounds
- 20.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.2 apg, 37-percent from the 3-point line
Brown was also named the tournament’s most outstanding player after posting 22 points, six assists, and two steals in 27 minutes in the championship game.
Thomas led the conference all season in points and rebounds per game as the starting center for the Bison.
“It is kind of a home game for them, but that’s what happens with some of the higher seeds,” Thomas told The Daily Item. “This being the seniors’ last go-around, we feel like we can win a couple games.”
Much like the Izzo-led Spartans, Davis and the Bison pride themselves on scheduling the best opponents possible, with a non-conference schedule featuring North Carolina, Maryland, Arkansas, and VCU.
After a 93-81 loss to UNC in Raleigh on November 15th, Bucknell has lost six games by an average of just over seven points, one going to overtime.
The Bison won the Patriot League last year and were selected as a 13-seed, losing to 4-seed West Virginia in the first round, 86-80. Then-sophomore guard Kimbal Mackenzie scored 23 points against the Mountaineers. Mackenzie averages 8.2 points per game this season, playing in 22 games — he dealt with an abdominal muscle tear earlier in the season — and also hit a game-winner against Colgate.
The winner of Friday night’s matchup between Bucknell and MSU will face one of TCU, Arizona State or Syracuse on Sunday.