LEWISBURG, Pa.—There's a buzz about Bucknell basketball again in the Patriot League.
A season after making their first NCAA tournament since 2006, the Bison are the league's preseason favorite. Bucknell won 20 of its final 22 regular-season games in 2010-11 then stormed through the conference tournament before falling to Connecticut 81-52 in the second round of the NCAA.
And no, losing to the eventual national champion did not make Bucknell feel better.
"That's what people have been telling us," said guard Bryson Johnson, one of four returning starters, "but I think on the team it doesn't really help."
It's just the motivation the players need to make sure there's no complacency after the 25-9 season, the second-most successful in school history behind the 27-win season in 2005-6. That year ended with the second of back-to-back trips to the NCAAs, when the school developed a reputation as giant killers under coach Pat Flannery for first-round victories over Kansas and Arkansas.
Now this team, led by fourth-year coach Dave Paulsen, has a chance for their own repeat. Bucknell was the unanimous pick to win the conference in a poll of coaches and sports information directors.
Lehigh was second, followed by Holy Cross, Lafayette, American, Colgate, Navy and Army.
"Last year, when we were winning games, especially on that streak, it was kind of new to everyone," said Johnson, the team's second-leading scorer (11.7 points) behind the league player of the year, forward-center Mike Muscala (14.9 points, 7.3 rebounds). Johnson shot 45.6 percent (99 of 217) from 3-point range last year, the seventh-best figure in the country.
"Now it's not, and we kind of expect that hopefully and try to improve as much as we can, and know that to get into the NCAA tournament is difficult."
Bryan Cohen, voted the league's top defender last season, also returns, but Bucknell must fill a big hole in replacing point guard Darryl Shazier. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.70 (185 assists to 50 turnovers) was second in Division I only behind Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor.
Among candidates to replace Shazier are two sophomores: Cameron Ayers, whose father, Randy, is an assistant with the NBA's New Orleans Hornets; and Ryan Hill, whose cousin is a football standout at Penn State, defensive tackle Jordan Hill.
"We have to replace Darryl collectively," Paulsen said. Muscala, Johnson and other recipients of Shazier's passes will now have to "tighten up their games to be aware of the fact that we'll probably have more turnovers at the point guard position than last year."
Lehigh features preseason player of the year C.J. McCollum (21.8 points, 7.8 rebounds), the top returning scorer in Division I and top returning rebounder in the league.
Two teams have new coaches. Colgate chose Temple assistant Matt Langel to take over a program that finished 7-23 overall and 4-10 in the Patriot League.
But Navy made the biggest offseason splash when the service academy lured coach Ed DeChellis away from his alma mater, Penn State, to take over the Midshipmen in late May. The job opened after Billy Lange resigned following two straight losing seasons to take an assistant coaching job at Villanova.
DeChellis finished with a 114-138 record at Penn State, but was 41-95 in the regular season in the Big Ten.
Overseeing future service members has given DeChellis new perspective on coaching. When he left Penn State, DeChellis said he had found "a calling" in the Navy position.
"The only challenge we have is trying to adapt what we have to do to the military stuff that the kids have to do every day," DeChellis said. "We have to be more cognizant of their time."
Senior guard Jordan Sugars (16.0 points) is the top returnee. Otherwise, DeChellis will have to build around a young team with 16 freshmen and sophomores, no juniors and three seniors.
DeChellis said his philosophy hasn't changed from the one he tried to instill at Penn State, with an extra emphasis on rebounding.
"We're going to play good defense, rebound the ball and get good shots," he said. "If we do those three things, we'll have a chance to win."
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