Bucknell’s Mike Muscala a do-it-all threat

Last week, we told the story of South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters, a formerly little-known high school player from Minnesota who has improved his game and his profile enough to be considered a legitimate NBA Draft pick.

Clearly there’s something going on in the North Star State besides hockey, because this week we present … another story about a formerly little-known high school player from Minnesota who has improved his game and his profile enough to be considered a legitimate NBA Draft pick.

A reasonable argument could be presented that Bucknell forward Mike Muscala is the most productive player in college basketball. The 6-foot-11, 239-pound senior is more versatile than a pair of khakis, capable of impacting a game with his defense, his ability to score inside or out and even his passing. When the big man walks off the floor after a game, his fingerprints can be found all over the place.

You want traditional statistics? How about these: Muscala is the only player in the country averaging at least 18 points and 11 rebounds. He leads all of Division I in double-doubles (19). And, besides Muscala, only two other players in the country are leading their teams in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots.

Muscala shows up well in advanced statistics, too. In John Hollinger’s player efficiency ratings, which can still be found on-line despite the fact he’s now employed by the Memphis Grizzlies, Muscala is second behind only Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk. Ken Pomeroy rates Muscala No. 6 in the country in offensive efficiency. Pomeroy doesn’t keep a defensive efficiency stat, but Muscala produces in ways tangible and intangible.

“Mike anchors our defense,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “Our field-goal percentage defense is 11th in the country. We’re second or third in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. We don’t get out [in the passing lanes] and deny and don’t get a lot of steals. We press up on shooters and go over the top of ball screens because Mike’s back there to block shots. And he probably alters three times as many shots as he blocks.”

Paulsen runs his offense through Muscala, who occasionally becomes the world’s tallest point guard, facilitating for teammates when he’s not busy posting up, driving past plodding defenders, making free throws and even knocking down 3-pointers.

“He shoots the 3 exceptionally well,” Paulsen said. “We just don’t have him shoot that much because he’s dominant around the basket. But we have a drill where we try to make 50 3s in five minutes. He’s routinely in the high 50s, low 60s.”

Given how good Muscala has become, it’s hard to believe he’s not playing in the Big Ten. If foresight, not hindsight, were 20-20, it’s logical to assume Minnesota coach Tubby Smith would have Nate Wolters at the point and Mike Muscala as his power forward and not be worrying about whether his team can win enough games to earn an NCAA Tournament invitation.

Much like Wolters, Muscala didn’t draw a lot of Division I interest in high school. As a senior at Roseville (Minn.), he was still catching up to the growth spurt that saw him steadily progress from 6-1 as a freshman to 6-9 as a senior. If power conference coaches would have stopped to consider what was going on with Muscala’s game relative to his frame, they would have figured out that as he grew, he retained his guard skills.

“That’s what impressed me when I first saw him,” said Bucknell assistant coach Dane Fischer, a native Minnesotan. “He had so many guard skills, skills you need when you’re the same size as everybody else. He was able to continue to develop his overall game while growing as much as he did.”

So why, before Bucknell got involved, were North Dakota State and South Dakota the only Division I schools to offer Muscala a scholarship? As stories such as Wolters’ and Muscala’s reveal, some things are just meant to be.

That’s the best way to explain how Bucknell ended up with Muscala. Paulsen, who had won a national championship at Division III Williams College, was hired in late May 2008 to replace veteran coach Pat Flannery, who had abruptly retired. By that time it was too late to recruit for the next season. Even recruiting for the season after that required considerable scrambling. For help, Paulsen asked one of his former assistants at Williams to be on the lookout.

“I couldn’t hire him at Bucknell,” Paulsen said. “I needed guys with more experience. But I knew he was going to all these camps for me when I was at Williams, so I asked him to let me know if he saw anybody he thought could play. He saw Mike Muscala at Harvard’s camp.”

Paulsen relayed the name to Fischer, who had heard of Muscala but had never seen him play. The first time Fischer saw Muscala on the court, he got a strange sense of déjà vu.

“I’d been at Rider for Jason Thompson’s last three years,” Fischer said. “It was like telling the exact same story. A guy grows late, develops in college, and by the time he’s a senior, it’s like, ‘where did this kid come from?’ ”

At least that’s what Fischer hoped when he reported back to Paulsen, who was intrigued by what he heard and wanted to try and sign Muscala. There were anxious moments as Muscala wound his way through the AAU tournament scene that summer.

“Mike didn’t play for a real high-profile AAU team,” Paulsen said. “That was beneficial.”

“He didn’t play in a ton of tournaments that summer,” Fischer said. “If he’d have been out there the whole month of July, it would have been hard to get him to come to Bucknell.”

Muscala visited the school, and by August, barely two months after Paulsen was hired, he committed to the Bison.

“It just seemed like the right fit in terms of not only basketball, but the community, the fan support,” Muscala said. “And it seemed like a family with the coaches. I also wanted to get a good education. That was very important to me. When it came down to [the decision], I couldn’t really explain it, but I knew Bucknell was the right fit for me.”

Paulsen’s first recruiting class, which also included future All-Patriot League players Bryson Johnson and Joe Willman, turned out to be a bonanza that would help him quickly rebuild the program. After Paulsen’s 7-23 debut season, Muscala, Johnson and Willman arrived to begin the process of turning things around. In 2009-10 the Bison were 14-17. A year later, Muscala was voted the PL’s player of the year as Bucknell finished 25-9 and played in the NCAA Tournament. Last season the Bison were 25-10 and advanced to the second round of the NIT. And this season, Bucknell is 22-4 and alone atop the PL standings.

“He’s been a cornerstone,” Fischer said. “A huge reason we’ve had that kind of success.”

Another postseason appearance appears likely, but unlike other potential draft picks, Muscala doesn’t need that March forum to showcase his skills. NBA teams are already aware of him, and not just because he’s roughing up a mid-major league. When the Bison play a power conference school, Muscala gives a glimpse of what he might have done at a higher level.

Bucknell lost 66-64 at Missouri in early January and nearly pulled off an upset behind Muscala’s 24 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and two assists. The Bison outrebounded the Tigers, who were leading the nation in rebounding, for the first time all season. Missouri’s rugged front line includes two players the NBA will consider come draft time, Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers.

“When NBA scouts call me,” Paulsen said, “the only thing I tell them is that, wherever Mike is projected on the draft boards, whenever he works out for teams and they see his skill level, and they interview him and get a chance to know him as a person, his ranking will go up.”

Muscala will find a way to contribute at the next level. Some players get drafted because they have one NBA-level skill. Muscala will get drafted because his next-level skill is his entire package. Even Muscala has a hard time identifying the strong point of his game.

“That’s a tough question,” Muscala said when asked whether he prefers scoring, handing out assists or blocking shots. “I guess it depends on what each play is. If you make a tough shot or a good dunk, that’s better than your average assist. If you make a cool assist, that’s going to be better than your average layup. As a player, I kind of value doing a little bit of everything on the court.”

Under Paulsen’s tutelage, Muscala has added bits and pieces to his arsenal every year. He showed up at Bucknell as a pick-and-pop four man but was encouraged to get stronger and throw his weight around inside. Through hard work, Muscala made himself into a threat in the paint, all the while maintaining his perimeter skills.

“In all my years of coaching, I haven’t seen a post player that passionate about getting better every single day,” Paulsen said. “Mike is always working on his game, whether it’s on the court or in the weight room. When your best player is your hardest worker, that affects everything we do in our program.”

There’s a good reason for Muscala’s passion and work ethic. At some point during his high school career, he got sick of hearing people tell him what he couldn’t do.

“I’ve had people tell me I wasn’t good enough at every level I’ve played on,” Muscala said. “And at every level, I’ve used that as motivation to keep working.”