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Bucknell Returns to the NCAA Tournament By Playing Smart Basketball

Mike Muscala is the best decoy since man made wooden ducks. But he is so much better than that. Wooden ducks don't get 20 points and 11 rebounds, or play in the NCAA Tournament.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The media makes a lot out of the low APR scores that teams receive. No one ever talks about the high ones.

Well, Northwestern talks about the high ones, since they have little in terms of NCAA Tournament appearances to make something else important.

But there are schools out there where academics are high and teams make the Tournament field. Look no further than the team that closed out the win in the Patriot League on Wednesday.

Bucknell fields five players that are on the dean's list. In the latest APR report, Bucknell scored a 995 out of 1,000. That is getting it done. In the Patriot League Championship, Bucknell walked away with the win over Lafayette, 64-56.

And they did it by putting those smarts to use on the floor. They used the guy who should be a first team All-American perfectly. Let him get his shots, his rebounds. But use him as a decoy too.

The thing people don't realize about all of those double-doubles that Mike Muscala gets is that he does it while being double-teamed -- or even triple-teamed -- most of the time. He is not just sitting under the hoop, or playing in some fast-paced offensive scheme. I mean, we are talking slow here.

Muscala still comes away with 20 and 10 more often than not. Wednesday night, it was 20 and 11, plus a block and an assist thrown in for good measure. Had it been just that, we would have been welcoming Lafayette back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.

That is a long time ago. (I should know. That was the year AFTER I graduated from college.)

But instead there was Joe Willman, playing in the post perfectly, spinning off screens. He scored 14 points, and grabbed eight boards, six of those on the offensive end.

He was open because Muscala helped to draw a crowd.

Others contributed too. Cameron Ayers got to the line for eight of the 24 foul shots that Bucknell earned. The bench even scored 17 points (something rare, like in that no player on the Bison that doesn't start gets more than 38 percent of the available minutes; they sit, a lot, or don't score when they come in).

But Bucknell played the ball control game: low turnovers, lots of offensive boards, and just eight fouls, most of those in the final minutes of the game. Lafayette was going to need to take this game if they wanted it, and would have needed to try really hard to do it.

For a while, it seemed that might happen. Joey Ptasinski came off the bench to score 15 points for the Leopards. That included eight points in a row for Lafayette, during a time when Bucknell couldn't make a shot.

But that turned around, as it usually does for the Bison. Or more specifically, Muscala turned around, hitting two hook shots over the defense -- one with each hand -- and kept Bucknell in front.

See, the smart team went to its best man when it mattered most. And that team is going to the NCAA Tournament.