LEWISBURG, Pa. – It’s never easy for first-year head coaches, but that can be doubly true when trying to step in at a program that’s used to having success.
Nathan Davis has plenty going for him at Bucknell, not the least of which is his tenure as an assistant coach on the most successful Bucknell teams of all-time: the 2004-05 team that upset Kansas (and won an ESPY for doing so), and the squad the following year that went undefeated in the Patriot League (and 28-5 overall), getting a No. 9 seed in the NCAAs and beating Arkansas in the first round.
What he didn’t have prior to Nov. 13 was Division I head coaching experience. Davis came to Bucknell after six successful seasons at Division III Randolph-Macon (Va.). But Davis has found the transition difficult. The Bison won its opener against Division III Shenandoah (a team Davis beat handily last season as well), then led Wake Forest for much of the game before falling before getting road wins at Robert Morris and Manhattan.
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) December 27, 2015
So far so good. Alas, Bucknell (3-8) has not won since, with new-look Fairfield coming to Sojka Pavilion and running wild in a 101-91 victory, the Bison’s seventh straight loss as they stare at conference play beginning Wednesday at home against Navy. While it is obviously Davis’ first year at the helm, there is some frustration building. After all, Bucknell won the regular season Patriot League title last season, and barely got edged out by Lehigh as the conference favorite in the preseason poll (to be fair, Lehigh has struggled as well, and they don’t have a new coach).
Davis has done things a little differently than his predecessors in the early-going, at least in terms of style. Both Dave Paulsen (2009-2015) and Tim Flannery (whom Davis was an assistant under) rarely got above 250th in adjusted tempo, the two best teams referenced before (2005 and 2006) ranking 297th and 286th, respectively. The Bison are currently 54th in adjusted tempo this season, and it played right into Fairfield’s hands on Sunday afternoon.
Of course, the tempo would be fine if Bucknell were defending, but the Bison are 289th in defensive efficiency as well, giving up well over a point per possession (and 1.19 Sunday) in all of its latest four losses. Defense was what won for Flannery in those remarkable seasons, that and taking care of the ball, which Bucknell did not do against Fairfield, either, turning it over 23 times.
“Our strength is our ability to score in a variety of different ways,” Davis said. “We want to give ourselves an opportunity to score as easily as possible. That doesn’t mean we’re going to shoot it all the time, but we have to get it up the floor and give us a chance to get good looks early. If it’s not there, we have to execute late, too, but if people want to push up and down the floor, it’s not that big a deal, we just have to execute better.”
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It’s easy to be doom and gloom, but there are some positives, namely that – as we’ve mentioned on this site many times before – for one-bid leagues, the non-conference season is essentially the preseason and Davis and his staff will now make the necessary adjustments. Even under Paulsen last season, Bucknell struggled in the non-conference in many of the same areas just discussed (going 5-8), but was able to go 13-5 in league play, even if it got upended by Lafayette in the Patriot semifinals.
History is also on Davis’ side, Bucknell fans will remember that – like Davis – both Paulsen and Flannery were hired from successful Division III programs, and it took both a while to get their bearings in Lewisburg. In fact, Paulsen was 7-23 in his first campaign of 2008-09, and while expectations were lower for that team, Paulson went on to win the Patriot League regular season title four times in the next six years, going to a pair of NCAA Tournaments.
So no matter what happens this season, no one will be hitting the panic button at Bucknell. However, with his only preseason All-Patriot first-teamer a senior (Chris Hass, who was honored for scoring his 1,000th career point before the game), Davis certainly hopes his first season doesn’t finish like Paulsen’s did.
“It’s all right there,” Davis said. “It’s frustrating and people were getting angry because we’ve let some games slip away that we thought we should have won. But that starts defensively, we have to make it harder for the other team to score. Our matchups have to get better. A lot of things have to get better. Right now, none of it is up to par. We’ve shown what we’re capable of doing, but we have to do it for 40 minutes.”
What else did we learn Sunday afternoon at one of the great mid-major venues in all the land?:
1) It’s an odd mix for Bucknell right now
The Bison fell to 1-4 at home and just 3-4 when scoring 80 or more points, which are both quite ridiculous by Bucknell standards. With someone like sophomore Nana Foulland patrolling the middle, it doesn’t seem like the Bison should be having so many defensive issues. But Fairfield was able to get out in transition and use penetration to free up its shooters. Bucknell only recorded four steals in an 86-possession game, and although they dominated the boards (more on that in a second), still gave up 100 points (and 1.19 ppp to go with 61.7 eFG%). As I alluded to before, Bucknell was only 263rd in defensive efficiency last season and graduated arguably its best defender in Stephen Kaspar. So this could be a problem in Patriot League play, especially because many Patriot teams feature posts that can step out and shoot. But they should be alright on the boards.
“For the last nine minutes of the first half, we made it challenging for them to score,” Davis said. “We contested shots, we started defending ballscreens better, we made it hard for them to score. But for the rest of the game, we pretty much let them do whatever they wanted, and that wasn’t good enough.”
At the other end, the key is to get Hass open looks, much easier said than done. He scored 19 points, but did not hit a three (which is a credit to him). J.C. Show transferring to Binghamton takes one shooter away, and on Sunday, Zach Thomas was limited to only four minutes with an ankle injury. Seniors Ryan Frazier and Dom Hoffman tried to step up, but although point guard Stephen Brown has been very solid (7 assists and 1 turnover Sunday), he is not a shooter, which is another defender that can get near Hass on the perimeter. But we shall see.
2) It was a bizarre statistical game
Take away the 86 possessions, which is remarkable when you read a story like this from two years ago and/or watched any of Fairfield’s games a couple of years ago (the 34-31 game at Draddy in 2013 comes to mind), but the Stags gave up 21 offensive rebounds (losing 51-24 overall on the boards), yet forced 23 turnovers and had 14 steals, with 10 different players recording at least one.
After never scoring more than 85 points in Sydney Johnson’s tenure, the Stags have scored more than 100 twice in a month and hit 17 three-pointers in each (both of which shattered the old school record). They also recorded 24 assists on 31 field goals and did a lot of it without Marcus Gilbert, who played only 16 minutes because of foul trouble and a relatively big Fairfield (6-5) lead (Johnson said afterward when asked about Gilbert’s health, “He looked pretty good to me”).
Runnin’ Stags indeed, as Fairfield is now up to an unfathomable 32nd in adjusted tempo.
“We’re going to let it fly,” Johnson said. “We’re going to get out in transition and out as much pressure on people as we can. It’s one of the core values of this team. That’s why we conditioned so hard this year. We want to go. If you stop us, then we feel like we have some good half-court stuff, but we want to push it as much as possible.”
3) Can Fairfield contend in the MAAC?
The Stags’ next three MAAC games are all on the road, at Manhattan, Siena, and Rider, with the game after that being Monmouth at home, so we should have a decent idea after those contests. The Manhattan game at Draddy Gym Saturday is particularly intriguing with the Jaspers at 0-2 in the league and desperate, and also playing a defensive style that should cut off much of Fairfield’s outside game. But we shall see.
The biggest beneficiary of the up-tempo style seems to be Jerome Segura, who struggles shooting, but is excellent making decisions in the open floor (9 more assists Sunday). Tyler Nelson was one off his career high (25 points) and between he, Gilbert, Curtis Cobb, and even Jerry Johnson, Matija Milin and Kevin Degnan, everyone must be respected from the outside. Jonathan Kasibabu played only 13 minutes due to foul trouble (which would have helped the rebounding), but he’s shown he can score on the inside as well.
There’s a long MAAC season ahead, but for a team with just nine MAAC wins (and 14 total) in the last two seasons, there’s certainly some reason to be optimistic.
“Manhattan is getting healthy, so I think we’ll see a different team than Bucknell did,” Johnson said. “We’re going to worry about that in the next couple of days. Right now we’re going to enjoy this on the long ride home. We have some things like boxing out we have to work on, but we did a lot of things very well.”