By: Will Burchfield
The senior trio of Stephen Brown, Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland walked up to the dais on Thursday afternoon, the point guard leading the forward and the center, and sat down in unison. After four years together, they’re in sync by instinct.
“The three best to do it in Bucknell history,” said their teammate, Nate Sestina.
Perhaps that can be debated. And perhaps judgment should be tabled with Brown, Thomas and Foulland preparing for their biggest opportunity yet. Still, as far as threesomes go, this one is as good — and as classic — as it gets.
They’ve each played more than 100 games and scored well more than 1,000 points over four conference-winning seasons at Bucknell. Foulland, the rangy center, was the Patriot League Player of the Year last season. Thomas, the versatile forward, was the Patriot League Player of the Year this season. And Brown, the lightning-quick point guard, was always the engine that made them go.
“The most underrated player I’ve been around in a long time,” Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said of Brown, a three-time All-League selection.
“They really do have maybe the ultimate balance,” said Tom Izzo.
About an hour earlier, Michigan State had taken its turn at the podium. Sophomores Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston flanked senior Tum Tum Nairn. In a way, Nairn felt out of place. The Spartans are defined by their youth, their five leading scorers all underclassmen. It’s the one area in which they appear vulnerable to the Bison, whose five leading scorers are all upperclassmen.
Thomas, Foulland and Brown lead the way, in that order, combining for about 50 points per game.
With 14th-seeded Bucknell eyeing an upset versus third-seeded Michigan State Friday night at Little Caesars Arena, where all the pressure will be on the Spartans, Tom Izzo is wary of his team’s veteran opponent.
“That pressure, everybody deals with it differently. And there’s no secret that we’re still an awfully young team. Talent matters, but it doesn’t always matter over experience. If there’s one thing that worries me a little bit, it would be that,” Izzo said.
Boiled down to a single matchup, Michigan State versus Bucknell is Thomas versus Jaren Jackson Jr. The 6’7 Thomas, who was an unheralded high-school recruit and a late-bloomer in college, is a star thanks to hard work and a well-honed basketball IQ. (Naturally, he’s also a biomedical engineering major.) The 6’11 Jackson, a one-and-done freshman from the start and one of the most athletically gifted players in the country, is a star because, my gosh, how couldn’t he be.
Thomas is well aware of the challenge in front of him. He also has his own ideas of how to meet it.
“Obviously, he’s a lottery-pick type,” Thomas said of Jackson, “so it’s going to be a tough matchup. I think with that you just have to look at where you can limit him the best you can. And then I think I’m a matchup problem as well for him.
“Just try and exploit the small weaknesses that he has and then play to my strengths and my knowledge of the game since — you know — he’s a freshman, so hopefully I have a little bit of experience on him.”
Jackson brushed aside the butterflies on the eve of his first NCAA Tournament game and said he’s “locked in, ready to go.” Thomas and his teammates are relying on their experience in last year’s tournament when, as a 13 seed, they nearly stunned West Virginia in the first round.
The Bison used that loss at motivation throughout this season. They wanted desperately to get back here, and here they are. But their mindset is different this time around. They won’t be pausing to take in the sights and sounds.
“We didn’t want to just get back here,” Thomas said. “We wanted to set the goal of winning a game or two and getting as far as we can, because we think we’re talented enough.”
He added later, “And we have the confidence.”
Aside from Jackson and fellow freshman Xavier Tillman, Michigan State’s key underclassmen have been here before too. The Spartans upset Miami in the first round of last year’s tournament, led by first-timers Bridges, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford, before bowing out against No. 1 seed Kansas.
Still, there’s a difference between experience and nerve. For as many big games as the Spartans have played the past couple seasons, there’s no way around the fact the Bison have been around longer and seen more. They’re hardened to a degree that youth can’t match.
Whether talent will transcend it remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a question giving Izzo pause.
“Don’t get mesmerized by the Duke, Kentucky deal. Freshmen are still freshmen, and we still have four sophomores and two freshmen that are playing a ton, so I’m anxious to see how those freshmen respond. And remember, even our sophomores, they had a cup of coffee last year,” Izzo said.
The Spartans have a lot going for them on Friday night, including a home-court advantage that will be as stark as any in the tournament. If they they race out to an early lead, punctuated, say, by Jackson swatting aside a shot by Thomas and Bridges throwing down a dunk at the other end, the place will be up for grabs. The game will not.
But if Bucknell keeps the score close and the crowd slowly starts to shift and the walls at Little Caesars Arena start closing in, head’s up for the Bison. Head’s up for Brown, Thomas and Foulland. If they’re the three best to do it in Bucknell history, it’s history still in the making.