Having completed an improbable run through the Big East Conference Tournament, the Connecticut Huskies now regroup and prepare to take on the Bucknell Bison in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
UConn, which is the third seed in the West Region this year, is an impressive 15-1 in the first round of the tourney dating back to 1990, which doesn't bode well for 14th-seeded Bucknell. The Huskies made an early statement this season by winning 10 straight games out of the gate, including the Maui Invitational. The team did struggle against the rest of the Big East during the regular season as expected, putting up a 9-9 record, but then something remarkable happened. Forced to play in the first round of the conference tournament in New York City last week, the Huskies bounced DePaul, then topped Georgetown, slipped by Pittsburgh, survived Syracuse in overtime and then captured the title with a 69-66 win against Louisville on Saturday to complete the incredible run of five wins in five days.
Bucknell, which opened the season with six defeats through the first eight games, with the two victories coming against the likes of Binghamton and Presbyterian, then hit its stride with a run of 13 wins in 14 games. After a loss to Army at the end of January by 20 points, the Bison again ripped off a 10-game win streak which included victories over the Black Knights, Lehigh and Lafayette in the Patriot League Tournament in order to earn the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
As far as the team's history in the tourney is concerned, Bucknell has a record of 2-4 and in both 2005 and 2006 advanced to the second round after defeating Kansas and Arkansas, respectively.
On the other side, UConn is in the tournament for the 30th time and has a record of 44-27, advancing as far as the Final Four just two years ago. Not only is head coach Jim Calhoun gunning for his 850th career victory tonight, he is also hoping to kick start a run that might take him and his Huskies to their third national title (2004 and 2009).
UConn owns two wins in as many meetings against the Bison, but the teams haven't tangled since 1953 when the Huskies posted an 80-64 triumph over Bucknell. The winner this time around will meet up with the winner of the Missouri/Cincinnati battle in the third round on Saturday.
Despite being only a sophomore, Mike Muscala made quite an impression on everyone in the Patriot League this season and because of that he was named the player of the year, just the third second-year player to earn the award. The Patriot League Tournament MVP, Muscala had a total of nine games this season in which he scored at least 20 points, watching his scoring average jump from 9.9 ppg a year ago to 14.9 ppg this time around. Even though his minutes increased less than three per game from his freshman campaign, Muscala's rebounding efforts also leaped from 4.9 per game to almost seven and a half per outing in 2010-11. Bryson Johnson was responsible for 11.7 ppg for the squad as he connected on an incredible 96-of-209 shots behind the three- point line, many times his shot being set up by Darryl Shazier (8.3 ppg) who handed out 185 assists and had a mere 49 turnovers. As a group, the Bison shot a very successful 40.2 percent from three-point range, much better than the opposition at only 31.5 percent.
Bucknell might have Muscala, but UConn has Kemba Walker who produced the third-highest scoring average in program history with 23.5 ppg and was one of the top scorers in the nation this year. A candidate for National Player of the Year and a finalist for both the Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson Awards, Walker set a Big East Conference Tournament record with a staggering 130 points, although one has to remember that he produced that lofty total through five games. A starter in all 35 games for UConn, Walker not only scored a boat-load of points for the team, he also made sure to keep his teammates involved in the action with 150 assists, against just 77 turnovers. Many of those successful dishes found their way into the hands of Alex Oriakhi who contributed a modest 10.0 ppg towards the team's 73.6 ppg. More importantly, Oriakhi carried on the tradition of the intimidating big man in the middle for the Huskies as he provided 8.5 rpg and 58 blocked shots. Even though he is just a freshman, Jeremy Lamb (10.3 ppg) has also made himself into a scoring threat that Walker can feel comfortable sharing the ball with.
As well as the Bison played after a rough start this season, competing against a team like UConn is a whole different animal than knocking off Lehigh and Navy from week to week so in that sense Bucknell might be a bit over its head tonight.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Connecticut 79, Bucknell 63