Arizona basketball: Broken promise breaks Buffs' back

Wildcats guard Mark Lyons tries to get a shot past the outstretched arms of Colorado's Andre Roberson.


Before the NIT, Dave Paulsen drew a "C."

As a result, the Bucknell coach was among the last to board a Southwest Airlines flight Tuesday from Maryland to Tucson.

The coach was then squished in the middle seat, between 6-foot-5-inch Cameron Ayers and 6-2 Bryson Johnson.

"Feels like first-class right now," he said after Wednesday's win, beaming.

While the Arizona Wildcats admitted after their 65-54 loss to Bucknell that they found motivation difficult, the Bison's enthusiasm was palpable.

In four years at Bucknell, Paulsen had never before beaten a team from the six power conferences. No players had, either. "We've talked to our guys about that," the coach said. "We've come close. We've fought. We've competed.

"We didn't want any moral victories."

That the game was on national television, at a hotbed of basketball history and passion "does a lot" for the program, too, he said.

"I think it's an upset," he said. "The world's going to think it's an upset. The NIT selection committee would think it's an upset."

In 2005, the Bison stunned Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The next year, they did the same to Arkansas.

No current player would have come to Bucknell were it not for those attention-grabbing wins, Paulsen said. Nor would the coach have.

"The bar's set high," he said, "and we relish those expectations."

Center Mike Muscala scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Bison, causing UA coach Sean Miller to predict he will "definitely play in the NBA" one day.

"I was confident," the 6-11 Muscala said. "I made sure to tell others to be confident, as well.

"We were going to be on national TV, and we had to keep our composure."

Muscala fouled out with 2:59 to play in what seemed like the Wildcats' opening.

"It was tough fouling out like that, in that situation," he said. "I knew we were going to get it done."

Statistically, it was Bucknell in a runaway.

The Bison made more field goals, three-pointers and free throws than the Wildcats, and out-rebounded them by eight.

After tweaking its defense based on Arizona's Pac-12 tournament film, Bucknell held the Wildcats to 35.4 percent shooting, about nine points lower than their season average.

"I thought our defense was terrific, especially in the second half," Paulsen said.

The Bison couldn't put away the UA, however, until Johnson made a three-pointer with 52 seconds left for a seven-point lead.

"I felt better when it went in," he said.

UA forward Solomon Hill said the "NIT should have been an opportunity that we looked forward to," but they didn't.

Senior guard Kyle Fogg could feel Bucknell's enthusiasm. "Every team we play really wants to give Arizona their best shot," he said. "It's definitely hard to take that best shot every night."

The Wildcats who played in the NCAA tournament last year could feel the difference in the NIT, senior Brendon Lavender said.

"I think it was harder for the seniors, the older guys who have been here," he said. "Losing that last game (to Colorado for the Pac-12 tournament title), it was a heartbreaker. Broke everyone's spirit down.

"It was really, really tough to come back from that."

Muscala, as a counterpoint, said Bucknell had to look at the NIT "as a blessing to have a chance to win in the postseason.

"If we win games here, it's still going to be a way to show how we did in the regular season."

The Bison have now won 48 of their past 60 games, dating to Dec. 1, 2010.

Paulsen sounded like the happiest traveler ever to Reno, Nev., home of the team's second-round game, the Nevada Wolfpack.

It helps verify what he tried to tell his players in the McKale Center locker room, minutes before the game.

"We're a really good team," he said, "but nobody outside our little bubble knows it."