(6) Butler vs. (11) Bucknell
(6) Butler Bulldogs
Representing the Atlantic-10 in their first year out of the Horizon League, the Bulldogs (26-8, 11-5) enter this year’s NCAA Tournament much more battle tested than in years past, not that that’s held them back at all. They’re back in the big dance after playing in the CBI last year. Senior transfer Rotnie Clarke, who played at Arkansas during his first three years of eligibility, has provided a major impact, putting up 16.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game. Inside the Bulldogs have senior center Andrew Smith, who was a member of both of their national runner-up teams during his first two years of eligibility. He’s a much bigger part of what they do now, contributing 11 points and six rebounds a night. Bulldogs head coach Brad Stevens is confident in his bench and willing to go nine deep in most games. His team scores 69 a night and boasts an impressive 4-0 mark against the RPI top 25 with wins against Gonzaga, Indiana, Marquette and North Carolina. The Bulldogs are definitely capable of stringing together some wins, but their defense will be tested. If they run into a team with a well-balanced and explosive attack, their defense may need to come up with key stops and force turnovers, which was not a strength during the regular season. They also can’t leave points at the free throw line, where they battle with inconsistency.
(11) Bucknell Bison
One of the keys to having a successful NCAA Tournament bracket is correctly identifying the Cinderella teams that are capable of pulling off upsets. The Bison (28-5, 12-2) are definitely a team that could survive past the opening round and potentially even beyond that. Representing the Patriot League, the Bison are searching for their third NCAA tournament victory in school history. In 2005 and 2006 they pulled off big upsets and are a threat to do so once again this year because of big man Mike Muscala. Muscala, one of the best kept secrets in college basketball, is a dominant low-post player who averaged 19 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two blocks per game this season. He’s surrounded by a quality supporting cast. They really get after it defensively, allowing just 57 points a game. The Bison take great care of the basketball, but have to be ready to combat teams packing it in against Muscala and forcing them to shoot from beyond the arc, which is not their strength. They went 3-1 against the RPI top 100, with their best wins coming against La Salle and New Mexico State and their lone loss coming against Missouri by two. Expect the Bison to be able to play with whoever they get matched up against and potentially advance if the spotlight brings out the best in Muscala.
HOOPSWORLD’s Pick: Butler. This is a real tough one to call, but we’re going to go with the Bulldogs slightly edging the Bison.