After helping his Atlanta Hawks team whittle down a 20-point deficit with under three minutes to play in Game 3 of last year’s NBA Eastern Conference semifinals against the Washington Wizards, Mike Muscala completed the comeback by nailing a three-pointer with 14.8 seconds left to tie the score and setting Twitter on fire to salute the former star from Bucknell and the Patriot League.
“Guys like Dennis Schroeder, Shelvin Mack and Mike Scott were making big plays to cut it down to 3 with around 20 seconds left,” Muscala said. “We took the ball out under their basket and Dennis raced it down, but slipped as he got close to the baseline. I was trailing the play, and he made a great pass from the floor to me outside the 3-point arc. (Marcin) Gortat was sagging in to help so I shot it and it went in.”
Though a buzzer-beater by perennial All-Star Paul Pierce took down Atlanta on that night, Muscala made his impact felt to help the Hawks win the series and advance to the conference finals. Muscala averaged 4.9 points and 3.0 rebounds per game in his first full NBA season in 2014-15, helping the Hawks to the second-best regular-season record in the league at 60-22.
Playing a role on one of the top teams in the NBA could have only been a dream when Muscala first arrived at Bucknell as a lightly recruited student-athlete from Minnesota.
“I decided on Bucknell mainly because I wanted an elite-level combination of academics and athletics. On top of that, I got along great with the coaching staff and the campus was beautiful. The only other university I strongly considered was Santa Clara.”
Muscala went on great and individual and team success in his four seasons at Bucknell, but it did not happen right away as he went through the usual adjustments of a freshman at the collegiate level.
“I felt confident at beginning of my freshman year, but the physicality and pace of the college game was a big adjustment for me. I struggled at the beginning of the season, but my confidence grew a lot after a big game against a talented Cornell team that made it to the Sweet 16 that year. I think our team’s confidence grew a lot that night too, despite losing in OT. We had a very balanced scoring attack, and we finished second in the Patriot League regular season.”
That would be the lowest regular-season finish in Muscala’s career at Bucknell, as the Bison finished in sole possession of first place in the standings in each of his final three years. Bucknell won the Patriot League title in his sophomore campaign in 2010-11 as Muscala claimed both the Patriot League Player of the Year and Tournament MVP awards.
“Sophomore year was a lot of fun for me. We went to Italy as a team the summer after my freshman year, and I think the experience helped us to improve not only our skills, but more importantly our chemistry. We didn’t start non-conference play particularly strong, however, and I remember having a meeting with Coach Paulsen after we dropped to 2-6. He was calm, and said it wasn’t time to panic, but that it was gut-check time. I remember pulling off two tough, defensive-minded wins over Boston University and Columbia at home right after that which proved to us how good we could be defensively. Our offense became really tough to guard as we entered into Patriot League play, with the great play-making of Darryl Shazier at point guard and shooters like Bryson Johnson, G.W. Boon, and Joe Willman. Add in Bryan Cohen and Stephen Tyree as defensive stoppers and we had a really great team.”
The success continued the next season as the Bison won their first 10 Patriot League games and started with a 20-6 record overall. Bucknell made it back to the Patriot League title game, but this time it was not to be as the Bison lost 82-77 at home against Lehigh. It was one of the most memorable games in Patriot League history and featured great performances by two future NBA players as Muscala had 30 points and 14 rebounds while C.J. McCollum notched 29 points to lead the Mountain Hawks.
“We had high expectations heading into the season, knowing that Lehigh would be our biggest challenge in the Patriot League and for us to get back to the NCAA Tournament. We split games in League play, but we won the regular-season title. Lehigh came out very aggressive in the championship game and we could never get a lead, always seeming to be down 2, 3 or 4 points. Gabe Knutson and CJ McCollum had really big games for them, and they pulled off the win on our home court.”
However, that was not the end of the season for Muscala and his teammates. Just a week after the Patriot League title game, the Bison went on the road and defeated Arizona 65-54 in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) as Muscala had 20 points and nine rebounds. The Bison lost a competitive game at Nevada in the next round, with Muscala again excelling with 25 points and 15 rebounds.
“Although it was heartbreaking to lose to Lehigh in the Patriot League championship, we stayed positive heading into the NIT and were able to knock off Arizona on their home court. We also played Nevada pretty tough in the second round despite the loss. I think our performance in the NIT, combined with Lehigh’s win over us in the Patriot League Championship and their upset over Duke in the NCAA Tournament, really motivated us in the offseason as we prepared for the next year.”
Muscala and his teammates saved the best for that next season. The Bison finished the regular season at 25-5 overall and 12-2 in the Patriot League, and had a handful of non-League highlights including a win at Purdue to open the season and narrow two-point loss at then No. 12 Missouri right before Patriot League play. The Bison won the Patriot League Tournament when they beat Lafayette at home in the championship game, and Muscala finished his career with a pair of titles as well as two Patriot League Player of the Year and Tournament MVP awards.
“I entered my senior year with high expectations, both personally and for the team. We got an 11 seed for the NCAA Tournament, facing Butler in Lexington, Ky. The game was low-scoring and hard-fought. Joe Willman played great and Steven Kaspar showed a lot of poise at point guard, but we came up short. I was really frustrated after the game because I missed a lot of shots I thought I usually made. I felt I let the team down, and that if we would have won we could have kept winning in the tournament. But I had a great four years with my classmates Bryson Johnson, Joe Willman, and Colin Klebon. We achieved a great deal and I made some lifelong friendships. “
Muscala had a great senior season individually that earned him national attention from media as well as NBA scouts. He went through the pre-draft process knowing that the chance to play in the NBA was within reach.
“I definitely had a lot more to prove being from a smaller school. I think my NCAA Tournament performance against Butler hurt my stock quite a bit, too. But I did well in most of my pre-draft workouts for NBA teams, and I ended up working out twice for the Hawks.”
Muscala was immediately traded to Atlanta after being selected by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round (44th overall) of the 2013 NBA Draft. But he didn’t earn the chance to play in the NBA right away. With the Hawks hoping to give him playing time to develop, Muscala started his professional career overseas in Spain.
“I was disappointed when I first found out that the Hawks wanted me to play overseas, but I quickly came to the realization that I could either embrace the opportunity to improve and develop my game, or not. I was able to get a lot of playing time against really good competition, and it was nice because we only played one game a week. This allowed for a lot of training time, both for my skills and body.”
The Hawks came calling for Muscala late in the season, and he ended up playing 20 games in the regular season for Atlanta in 2013-14 while averaging 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per contest. While Muscala can still be a force on the post, boards and defensively, the player who is fourth in Patriot League history in scoring and second in rebounding and blocked shots knew he had to broaden his game to succeed at the NBA level.
“There are a lot of areas of my game that have changed since playing in college. The biggest adjustment for me has been not being the main focus of the offense, but still learning how to be aggressive within the flow of our offense with the Hawks. Essentially, not looking to score every time I touch the ball, but still being aggressive and making good passes, setting good screens, spacing the floor well, and shooting good shots. Defensively, defending without fouling has been my biggest challenge, and that comes from being solid and showing my hands as much as possible.”
Muscala has company in the NBA out of the Patriot League as McCollum just finished his second season with the Portland Trail Blazers. Both players had key moments in last year’s NBA playoffs and developed in the second half of the season to show that there may be more to come in 2015-16 and beyond.
“It’s really great to see,” Muscala said. “I’m happy for CJ, and for two players from the Patriot League to be playing in the NBA at the same time is unprecedented. Our rivalry with Lehigh pushed us to get better each year at Bucknell, and more specifically he pushed me to be better as an individual player. He’s a great player and I know he will have a long career in the NBA.”
As he looks for continued success in the NBA, Muscala is also representing his roots from Bucknell and the Patriot League.
“Bucknell will always be very special to me. I’m from Minnesota, so I was far from home while at Bucknell, but it became a second home for me. Basketball aside, I learned so much from amazing professors, and developed some lifelong friendships with other students. I always enjoy going back to relive my time there and look forward to going back in years to come.”
“I’m proud to have played in the Patriot League. It represents an elite level combination of academics and athletics. Playing in Atlanta, not many people know of Bucknell or the Patriot League, but I’m always proud to tell them about both.”