Interesting things started to happen for Zach Thomas after his freshman year at Bucknell.
See, the Bison head coach, Dave Paulsen, left for George Mason and Thomas had started to make a name for himself at the mid-major Patriot League program. Suddenly there were questions asked on the sly. Was Thomas happy at Bucknell? Would he maybe want to explore an opportunity elsewhere?
Thomas stayed. And boy is he glad he did. After two seasons of winning the regular season title but failing to capture the Patriot League tournament championship, the Bison grabbed their first berth in the NCAA tourney field since 2012. They will face West Virginia at around 2:45 p.m. Thursday in KeyBank Center.
“It’s a great academic school. Everybody knows that,” Thomas said of Bucknell. “I’m in the engineering program there, so I was invested there. That’s one of the reasons I went there in the first place. I know with Bucknell’s history, the athletic director would have taken care of the situation, and they brought in a great coach with Coach," Nathan "Davis. I’m happy that I stayed and I think I made the right call.
“That whole situation is interesting, how that works out when you have a coaching change because you can’t officially talk to people but it’s like behind closed doors you know, you hear whispers. And that’s not just with me. That’s with a couple of our players. I’m happy that I stayed and the fact that we’re here now, hopefully we can win a game and make some noise.”
Thomas was among the student-athletes quoted in a recent Sports Illustrated story which explored the trend of players "transferring up" from mid-major colleges to big-time programs. For a multitude of reasons, that isn't a concern for Davis, who is in his second year as the head coach at Bucknell.
Trend story on "free agent culture" in college hoops. Up transfers have turned small schools into "minor leagues." https://t.co/utL9yDOKkm
— Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel) March 15, 2017
"I think that a lot of it comes back to what guys are looking for when they come to Bucknell," Davis said. "They want to get a high-level, top-notch education. They want to have a chance to compete to be in the NCAA tournament and go. There’s not a lot of schools that can offer them that. I think they’re all smart enough to know they’re in a pretty good situation and that the school itself has what they’re looking for. So the coaching change, as far as that goes, there weren’t a lot of places to go and be in a better situation. They’re not only willing to stay, they’re excited about the opportunity to stay."
And what an opportunity it's been, especially for the three starters in the junior class who had (hush-hush) chances to transfer to other schools. Center Nana Foulland was the Patriot League Player of the year and Defensive Player of the Year while Stephen Brown has run the offense as the team’s point guard. Thomas is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 16 points a game and was named the most valuable player of the Patriot League tournament.
“I think I was very fortunate,” said Nathan Davis, in his second year coaching Bucknell. “Typically you don’t take over a program that’s in such great shape with what coach Paulsen did before I got there. We had a really good group of guys that wanted to be good and expected to win and were willing to be coached.
“I think the junior class has been a big part of our success. They believe in what we’re doing. They’ve been completely about the team winning, they haven’t worried about individual success and when your best guys are doing that it’s hard for anyone else to do any different.”