Bucknell's Muscala mastered little things, then got big

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2013 - 6:35 AM

Skilled but scrawny at 6-9, the former Roseville player didn’t attract much D-I interest. He filled out at Bucknell and became a star.

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Bucknell’s Mike Muscala (31), from Roseville, became the first Patriot Leaguer to win the Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year in the same season.

Photo: Marlin Levison , Star Tribune

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Mike Muscala’s recruiting video arrived at 30 Division I schools in the summer of 2008. The 12-minute montage was designed to showcase his entire repertoire of basketball skills, however subtle some appeared.

His father, Bob, did not include any dunks in splicing together highlights of Mike’s junior season at Roseville. Instead, he chose fundamentals over flash, hopeful that college coaches would get a true snapshot of his son’s talent.

He featured clips of his son playing help defense and moving without the ball on offense. He focused on his footwork in the post and his ability to finish with both hands around the rim. He picked five or six plays that ended with his son missing a shot because, well, he worked hard to get himself in position to take a good shot.

Bob even included snippets of his son sitting on the bench cheering for his teammates.

“I still admire that,” Bob said.

Few would have predicted the tall, skinny kid on that tape would blossom into one of college basketball’s best players who has a chance to end his decorated career at Bucknell with one final flourish. The 11th-seeded Bison face Butler in their opening game of the NCAA tournament on Thursday. Bucknell is making its second tournament appearance in three seasons and the team’s postseason hopes rest largely on the shoulders of their 6-11 senior center.

Muscala is a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year and Bucknell’s career leading scorer with 2,027 points. He leads the nation with 22 double-doubles and is the only Division I player to average at least 18 points and 11 rebounds.

He earned a trifecta of awards this season, becoming the first player in Patriot League history to sweep Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors. He’s widely projected to be a second-round pick in the NBA draft this summer.

“I came in with high expectations,” Muscala said. “I’ve tried to have the attitude that I’m going to work hard and not look back and have any regrets.”

Muscala considers himself a student of the game more than a classic gym rat, though he logged countless hours over the years developing his blend of skills. A series of two-inch growth spurts as a kid pigeonholed him as a post player, but he always played with a guard’s flair. He idolized former Timberwolves swingman Wally Szczerbiak and still has posters of him hanging in his father’s home. “That’s the kind of player he wanted to be,” Bob Muscala said. “We didn’t expect he would become 6-11.”

Muscala earned third-team all-metro accolades at Roseville, but he wasn’t recruited by Gophers coach Tubby Smith and attracted offers primarily from Ivy League schools and mid-major programs. Bucknell associate head coach Dane Fischer graduated from Rochester’s John Marshall High and had heard good reviews on Muscala, so he flew to Indianapolis to evaluate him at an AAU tournament. Muscala was rail-thin at 6-9 and 200 pounds.

“He had floppy hair and braces,” Fischer said. “He looked like he was 14 years old.”

Fischer fell in love with Muscala’s game — the way he ran the court, didn’t back down against players who were physically superior and shot the ball from the perimeter with such soft touch. An Ivy League assistant coach sitting next to Fischer told him they were wasting their time.

“We both thought he would be really hard for us to get,” Fischer said.

Instead, Muscala found Bucknell’s combination of basketball and academics appealing and committed on his unofficial visit, becoming one of coach Dave Paulsen’s first recruits after he took over the program a few months earlier. He quickly became the face of their program.

“What really stood out to us is his work ethic and competitiveness and desire to be a good player,” Fischer said.

Muscala played mostly away from the basket his first two seasons, describing himself as a “pick-and-pop” jump shooter. His post game developed as he matured physically and added more muscle.

“The last couple of years I’ve done a better job of becoming a low-post presence,” he said.

He’s done much more than that. He’ll finish his career as one of the most accomplished players in Patriot League history. An NBA career seems likely, and the Academic All-America is on track to graduate in May with a degree in business management. And he gets one more opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament.

“If I think about it too much I start crying,” his father said. “This kid has exceeded everybody’s expectations and it’s of his making.”

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