Mike Muscala: The Patriot League’s Top Two-Way Star
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — It’s easy to look at the statsheet and see Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum’s gaudy scoring totals and think, How can McCollum NOT be the Patriot League Player of the Year?
Then you watch McCollum and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala square off in the league’s highest profile conference matchup and it becomes clear: McCollum is a stud, but Muscala stands out on both ends of the floor.
When the two stars were freshmen, McCollum landed the league’s Freshman and Player of the Year awards, but last season when Bucknell won the regular season title, Muscala grabbed the Player of the Year award. This year, both will likely finish one-two again with the winner likely come from the team that wins the league (likely Bucknell who has a stranglehold on the league at 4-0).
In Wednesday night’s matchup, Muscala quietly led his Bison to a 68-61 victory, recording 20 points, 12 rebounds and a couple of blocks.
“After playing those guys from Michigan St, he (Muscala) ranks right there with them,” Lehigh’s Gabe Knutson answered in response to whether Muscala was the best big man he’ll face this season.
Knutson, who is one of the league’s premier big men, struggled to score against the taller Muscala all night.
“With his size, he’s able to contest almost every shot,” Knutson said.
Muscala’s footwork allows the junior center to stay in position and guard the post with his arms straight up. He’s rarely chasing the ball and putting himself in a position to commit fouls. In a game littered with fouls, Muscala kept himself out of foul trouble and only averages three fouls per 40 minutes.
“Muscala has a different skill set,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said. “It’s unique. He can move his feet. His length is great and he has become more physical.”
The Bucknell center cleared the glass all night, and he’s a major part of why the Bison rank third in the country in defensive rebounding. Muscala grabs 25 percent of the opponents’ misses when he’s on the court.
“It’s hard to score over him,” Reed said. “He’s in the paint a lot, even on penetration you have to be concerned about him. We’ve seen him be effective at changing and altering shots against him.”
Muscala forced Knutson into a miserable 3-for-9 night from the field for just seven points, five below his season average. The Mountain Hawks also threw up a number of wild lay-ups in the first half in an attempt to get them over the 6-11 Muscala.
So what do you do if Muscala is a force around the basket?
Draw him out near the perimeter, of course.
“That was part of the early game plan,” Reed said. “He did a very nice job using his length and size, moving his feet. He built a wall and there wasn’t a lot of opportunities to even attack him. We got a couple, but it wasn’t something that we could take advantage of.”
While Muscala affected the defensive end of the floor for 35 minutes, he quietly amassed 20 points. He never scored consecutive baskets for the Bison, but he dropped a pair of key threes in the second half.
Yes, that’s right. He’s 6’11, and he hits three-balls. OK, he hasn’t hit many (15 in his three year career), but he’s capable.
“Mike thinks he’s a better shooter than Bryson [Johnson],” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “He tries to show it everyday in practice.”
Johnson is a career 39-percent shooter from long range.
Lehigh left Muscala open behind the arc, and Muscala made the Mountain Hawks pay. Lehigh had cut the Bucknell lead to one, but Muscala drilled a three which started a Bison run to stretch the lead back to eight.
After the Mountain Hawks sliced the lead back to one again, Muscala slipped open in transition to drill another three.
“He had 14 points in the second half and he hits that transition three,” Reed said. “He was very effective inside, but with breakdowns you give him extra opportunities.”
Those extra opportunities were the open threes, Muscala made Lehigh pay, and the Mountain Hawks never recovered in the game and potentially won’t in the regular season.
Bucknell stands 4-0 thanks to Muscala while Lehigh trails by two games and already lost once to the Bison.
Lehigh eyed a Patriot League regular season title, but thanks to Mike Muscala, that might be out of reach after just four league games.