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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Bucknell big could give Arizona problems in NIT first round

While it’s not the NCAA Tournament, the NIT is still loaded with dangerous teams.

From Seton Hall to Washington to Northwestern to Oregon, there’s no shortage of quality teams out to avenge an NCAA Tournament snub and make it to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four.

By name recognition alone, Arizona’s first round opponent Bucknell doesn’t appear to be one of those teams.

Despite winning the Patriot League regular season title, the eighth-seeded Bison were never on anyone’s NCAA Tournament bubble with hopes of an at-large bid.
Most analysts and Arizona fans are already looking forward to the Wildcats’ possible second-round matchups Oral Roberts or Nevada.

Not so fast.

“They’re obviously a very good team,” UA head coach Sean Miller said of Bucknell. “They’re a disciplined team, a very well-coached team. A skilled team, a smart team, a team that executes and a team that’s really rock solid in what they do.”

Despite playing in a mediocre Patriot League the Bison faced Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Minnesota in their non-conference season and kept all three road games closer than expected.

In addition to its tough non-conference schedule Bucknell, which went 12-2 in conference play, was also a conference championship win against Lehigh away from an NCAA Tournament birth.

The Bison have proven they can at least hang with college basketball’s elite, and have one weapon in particular that could put Arizona on upset alert — big man Mike Muscala.

Arizona’s struggles against opposing big men have been well-documented, and Muscala has the potential to continue that trend.

The 6-foot-11, 234-pound junior averages 16.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting 50.1 percent from the field and 84.9 percent from the line.

Muscala ranks in the conference’s top five in all of those categories and poses as a major challenge for the vertically deficient Wildcats.

“He’s good. I think if he were in our conference he’d be one of the elite players in our league,” Miller said of Muscala. “He’s really skilled. He’s not necessarily a back to the basket, big strong physical player. He’s really skilled. He shoots 85 percent, which is incredible for a big guy. He shoots the ball really well from the perimeter. He’s a true big guy but a very skilled big guy.”

Muscala is coming off of a huge 30-point, 14-rebound performance against Lehigh and could have his way with Arizona’s undersized frontcourt of Jesse Perry and Solomon Hill.

The Wildcats held their own against UCLA, fouling out both Josh Smith and Travis Wear while limiting David Wear. But Arizona had issues with Colorado’s length on the interior in the Pac-12 championship game, as the Wildcats were out-rebounded 39-30.

Bucknell led the Patriot lead in rebounding differential at plus-6.7, well above second-place Lehigh with a plus-2.1.

Muscala isn’t Bucknell’s only weapon, however. The Bison also rely on sophomore guard Cameron Ayers, who Miller said he is familiar with through following Ayers’ brother Ryan Ayers, who was a standout at Notre Dame until 2009.

Cameron Ayers averages 10.8 points per contest and helps bolster a Bison team that relies heavily on its defensive prowess. Like Arizona, Bucknell led its conference in defensive field goal percentage, allowing 39.5 percent shooting to opponents.

Between Muscala, Ayers, Bucknell’s defense and the Bison’s yearning to avenge a Patriot League Championship loss, Arizona shouldn’t book its flight to Madison Square Garden just yet.

“I’m sure that they’re somewhat disappointed that they’re not in the NCAA Tournament,” Miller said. “The consolation prize is that you have to really be ready because every team that we will face in the NIT is going to be a quality team.”

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