Little Caesars Arena
At 7:10 PM tonight, CBS will broadcast the first-round game between the Midwest Region’s #3 seed Michigan State and #14 seed Bucknell . Ranked #4/5 nationally the Spartans look to show everyone that their #3 seed was disrespectful and not prophetic.
As Michigan State has pointed out, Spartan Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo is making his 21st straight NCAA tournament appearance in his 23rd season as MSU’s head man. That streak that ranks second among active coaches to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Izzo’s seven Final Fours are the most in Big Ten history and tied for fifth all-time. The Spartans are 47-19 under Izzo, whose .712 winning percentage is fifth among active coaches. His 47 wins are tied for seventh-most in NCAA tournament history. Nathan Davis is 68-32 with three Patriot League regular-season titles in three seasons at Bucknell. Davis spent six seasons at his alma mater, Division III Randolph-Macon, where he was 141-39.
Bucknell, the #14 seed in the region, enters the NCAA Tournament with a 25-9 overall record and won the Patriot League Regular Season and Tournament championships. The Bucknell Coach and players talked Spartans ahead of their matchup today. You can watch that video above or read the transcript below.
THE MODERATOR: We’re going to start with Bucknell student-athletes Stephen Brown, Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland. Questions for the student-athletes.
Q. Zach, explain your senior project again. Can you do that in laymen’s terms for the uneducated?
ZACH THOMAS: Yeah, I’ll try. Okay, threw me off guard there. So I’m working on a senior design project. As a biomedical engineer, we have to do that as our senior design. So my group’s working on a device that stabilizes the coronary artery during bypass surgery. So we’re basically making improvements to the current device that’s being used.
Q. What interests you about that?
ZACH THOMAS: You’re talking about biomedical engineering?
Q. That particular field, medical, all of that.
ZACH THOMAS: I didn’t know I wanted to do it when I was a freshman, but I got into it through a program that they put you through your freshman year, gives you a little taste of a couple of different engineering fields. So I chose that my freshman year.
And then for this project it was kind of, we were able to choose a couple different topic areas and ours was cardiology department. So we then focused that idea, on that idea after a couple of weeks of probing in that area.
Q. All three of you have been honored for academics. Is there peer pressure among your team to excel, maybe Stephen and Nana can answer this. Is there peer pressure among everybody to perform academically within your program?
STEPHEN BROWN: I wouldn’t say necessarily peer pressure. We all come to Bucknell to get a good education and also play sports. So we just always try to keep each other accountable with our school. If anybody needs help. I mean, a bunch of us are usually in similar classes with electives and stuff. We do a pretty good job of keeping each other accountable. There’s really no pressure, especially when everybody is motivated to do well in school.
Q. I remember last year you took West Virginia almost to the end in Buffalo before falling. How much can you draw on that experience into your game tomorrow night against Michigan State?
NANA FOULLAND: Just we’ve been here and we knew what to expect this time. And we’ve prepared all year, we’ve had tough non-conference schedule to play big teams like this. So we’re up for the challenge. We’re better prepared this year, so it should be fun.
Q. Zach, you’re a biomedical engineering major. What do you plan on doing next year at this time?
ZACH THOMAS: I plan on playing basketball. Hopefully that major will pay dividends down the road. But for next year I’m trying to play professionally.
Q. Your matchup is Jaren Jackson Jr. I’m sure you’ve seen him. How do you prepare for a guy like that who obviously has the length, 7’4″ wing span and all the skill and talent?
ZACH THOMAS: Obviously he’s a draft, a lottery pick type. So it’s going to be a tough matchup. So I think with that you just kind of have to look at where I could limit him as best I can. And then I think I’m a matchup problem as well for him.
So just try and exploit his small weaknesses that he has and then play to my strengths and use my knowledge of the game since — you know, he’s a freshman so hopefully I have a little bit of experience on him.
Q. In the one-and-done era, it’s increasingly rare to see three seniors up here at the podium, leading scorers and all that. First of all, just what does it mean to be up there together and to go through this journey together and have it come to an end in the NCAA Tournament? And also in what ways do you think that the experience is going to show itself?
STEPHEN BROWN: It’s definitely a blessing being able to be with such a great class. Being able to go to the NCAA Tournament back-to-back years, being seniors, couldn’t ask for anything more, especially a way to end your four years here at Bucknell. And to be in it among these guys, you couldn’t ask for anything better.
Q. Tom Izzo says he, quote, shakes his head whenever he sees that you guys are a 14 seed. What’s that like to see a Hall of Fame coach so widely known for March success giving credit to your team like that?
ZACH THOMAS: Yeah, we shake our heads when they’re a 3 seed. No, it’s just the way it worked out, I guess. We feel like we could probably could have been maybe a little bit higher, but we like our chances either way. No matter who we’re playing against, we’ve just got to play solid. If we don’t come out and play solid then we’re going to get beaten.
We know we just have to be focused. Didn’t matter really what game we got or who we drew. We knew it was going to be tough. So we’re ready to have that focus today in shootaround, and then tomorrow in the game.
Q. Nana, you start off the season with a bunch of high-major, tough challenges this year. Did Coach Davis talk to you guys about, we’re going to start off in our non-conference schedule with a lot of really difficult tests so that we can get back here and be better prepared? Or did the coaches just do that and you looked at it, like, oh, that’s what they did?
NANA FOULLAND: It was a little bit of both. We wanted to be better prepared for like when we do get here. And the opponents we face — we played Carolina, played Arkansas. So, like, we played some big-time schools. So when we get here, we knew that we were going to face potentially a big-time school again.
So part of it was to prepare for this time. And part of it is just because we want to compete. We want to compete with the best. We didn’t want to play all the worst teams in college basketball. You want to play some of the best. As a competitor, I feel like you owe yourself to do that, to go at the best of anything, really.
Q. Stephen, when you look at the NCAA Tournament field, Vermont’s not in. Rider, Wagner, Middle Tennessee State, a bunch of programs like yours that won 25, 26, 27 games. Meanwhile there’s Power Five teams that didn’t even have winning records in their league and they get in. When you see stuff like that, does it bother you? Or did you not even notice that Vermont’s not in or somebody like that?
STEPHEN BROWN: Yeah, I mean, definitely saw a couple of those games that they were playing in. I mean, it’s just — it’s kind of tough. You go a whole year playing and your season kind of comes down to you win or lose in a tough matchup or a tough game, no matter if you play well or not. It’s kind of tough.
It’s just how things go with the NCAA Tournament. I didn’t really think about it that way, the way that you described it. But, I mean, it’s just how things kind of go, especially being in kind of like the mid-major, low major leagues as well. You face a lot of those situations, all those challenges, and it’s kind of disappointing to see those other kind of teams, kind of exciting to see those teams that have a great season don’t have an opportunity to be here.
Q. Zach, a year ago you guys were in this position almost similar seed and put the test to West Virginia. What did you guys take from that into this year to keep the success going? And how do you apply that in the next few days?
ZACH THOMAS: So coming here last year was obviously a great experience for us. It was a first-time for us. So we use that as motivation to get back here. We use that all season long every game. We know where the main goal was to get back here and we didn’t want to just get back here. We wanted to set the goal of winning a game or two in here and get as far as we can, because we think we’re talented enough.
We’ve got a great group coming back. We’ve got us three as seniors who are kind of leading the way. So, you know, we kind of had that experience under our belt. And we wanted to take that into every game and do as best we could. And we have the confidence.
This year’s a little bit different for us. Last year it was fun to take in everything. This year, I’d say we’re a little bit more focused. Still enjoying it, but definitely want to play as best we can and hopefully give ourselves a shot to win.
Q. Nana, how do you deal with Nick Ward? He’s obviously a guy a lot of people double team. How do you deal with him?
NANA FOULLAND: He loves getting into deep position, getting easy buckets. It’s hard. But at the same time it’s fun playing people like that. You don’t want it easy. You want someone who is going to go at you. And I’m going to go at him.
You gotta work, fight around and try not to give him easy touches, make everything hard. Good players are going to do what good players do. But you have to make every possession hard for him.
Q. Nana, you mentioned about the high majors, but also the Patriot League, you have two of the service academies in your league in Army and Navy. I asked football players, they said it’s very special to play in that type of environment. Is it the same for college basketball players when they go into West Point and go into Annapolis as the season goes on?
NANA FOULLAND: I think all three of us, the whole team, we love to play those places. Not just because of Army or Navy theme, but just cuz they just compete. They play hard the whole game. They make you earn the win. So it’s just fun.
They’re competitors and they’re good people. So I can’t really speak to the environment, whether it’s different from football or not. Because I don’t know about that. But just overall, them being competitors and everything like that, it’s a great spot to play at.
Q. You guys are playing in Detroit. Obviously real close to Michigan State. What’s it like, what’s going through your minds when you think, you’re thinking of kind of the fan turnout as far as the other team goes?
ZACH THOMAS: Obviously we know that there’s going to be a lot of Michigan State fans here. So we’re hoping that we can kind of quiet them early. And then for the fans that are here that aren’t Michigan State fans, hopefully they jump on our side.
I know we’ll have a good amount of Bucknell fans there, too. So hopefully we can kind of limit that crowd, having as much of a factor trying to shut them up early.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll open the second part of the press conference with an opening statement from Coach Davis and then we’ll open the floor to questions.
COACH DAVIS: Obviously we’re very excited to be here. We know it’s going to be a great challenge. Michigan State’s got one of the best teams in the country. I think we’ve got a pretty good team, too. So we’ll go out there and see what happens.
We don’t need to be better than them for four games or four days. It’s only 40 minutes. We’ll see what happens.
Q. I understand you have a relationship with Fort Wayne men’s basketball coach Jon Coffman. Talk a little bit about your friendship with him and what you get from each other being peers in this business.
COACH DAVIS: Jon and I played against each other in college. We were in the same class when I was at Randolph-Macon and he was at Washington & Lee. And then twice I’ve had jobs that he replaced me when I left, once at Emory & henry College, then at Colgate.
John’s a really good guy, great coach. Obviously he’s done pretty well down there. Very smart. Someone that you can trust. Someone I feel I can talk to when there’s things I want to talk out or I have issues or I want to bounce ideas off. So it’s been very beneficial friendship for me.
Q. This senior class, you could coach a long, long time and maybe not have this type of level of athlete and student in one class. Talk a little bit about how special it’s been to work with these guys.
COACH DAVIS: Well, certainly they make my job a lot easier. It begins with, obviously they’re serious students so they take care of all the stuff that needs to be done off the court so they can focus when it’s time to get on the court and practice or play. They’re great leaders in that they show up every day. They never complain. They’re the hardest workers on the team if those guys are going to work harder than everyone else, how can anyone else ever take a day off?
And obviously they’re excellent players. It’s nice as a coach when you draw something up and someone just goes and makes a shot anyway, or finds a way to get a loose ball. But they’re certainly very special individuals and hopefully we have a little while longer with them.
Q. When you scheduled your first few weeks of the season and your Carolina and Arkansas and I think Maryland was in there, was today or tomorrow, I should say, in your mind when you did that? Or was it some other motive?
COACH DAVIS: Well, I think anytime you play you don’t want the best team in your league to be the best team you’ve got to play against. So you want to get your flaws exposed so you can get to work on those and correcting them as soon as possible.
But the reality is that with the team we had returning and the success we had a year ago it was hard for us to schedule. It was hard for us especially to get home games.
And so playing in the PK80, which got us North Carolina and Arkansas, got us another home game. And Maryland was willing to play. So we had to fill the schedule out. We figured, well, we have a good team, we might as well go play people and challenge ourselves, than play some smaller schools or some non-Division Is to try to fill out our schedule.
Q. When you look back to last year’s game against West Virginia, I guess, first of all, from the venue standpoint, did you feel like the general crowd was getting behind you guys when it was close at that point? And then, secondly, what did those guys take into this year that they can make some noise in the tournament?
COACH DAVIS: The crowd’s a good question. It’s been a while. So I don’t remember as well. But I thought that there was a good buzz as that game was going close and people were getting behind us. I think the biggest things you take away from being there before is just that, again, it’s one game. It’s a basketball game. So it’s nothing special going on out there. It’s about playing the game itself.
But I think what it helps you with a lot is like today, is having been through the press conferences, the open practices. The day’s more full today than it is the day before the game of a typical game, so just getting your feet under yourself and understanding what you’re going through and how to manage your time and prepare properly is the most advantageous thing to having done it before.
Q. You mentioned the crowd. How critical do you think it is early in the game to not let that slide — you would expect there to be a big crowd on their behalf tomorrow night — to not let them go off on a run early, to keep your guys —
COACH DAVIS: I think to have a chance to win is the most important thing is to not fall too far behind. They’re really, really good, one of the best teams in the country. They’re talented, have a great coach. I think we need to play well for 40 minutes to give ourselves a chance at the end to win the game.
And the better team you play the smaller margin for error you have, so if you fall down 10, 12, 13 points, you’ve dug a hole that’s hard to get out of. So being able to stay as collected or hopefully be able to lead the whole way, but at least being able to stay in contact is going to be a big deal.
Q. I think Bucknell’s made the NCAA Tournament — I’m sorry, you’ve won 22 games eight of the last 14 years. Does the success feed on itself and kind of the snowball’s rolling the right way now?
COACH DAVIS: I think what it does, I think certainly in some ways it does. I think what it does is it creates a culture and an expectation that guys, when they decide they want to go to Bucknell are embracing — the idea that you’ve got to be a great student, that you’ve got to be a great athlete, that you want to play at the highest levels, that you want to play in games against Michigan State or North Carolina or Arkansas. I mean, you can go right down the line.
That’s why guys come to school at Bucknell, and they come because they want the opportunity to do that. So they want the opportunity to play for championships and those types of things. And I think that and the culture itself certainly helps it. But you’ve got to continue to get good players. Coaching staff’s gotta do a good job. You’ve got to have the support of the administration to give you the resources you need to be successful.
But I think that it does, to answer your question, it does help because it’s the expectation now as opposed to it’s not an aberration.
Q. Zach Thomas, I think he was the number two scorer in Maryland public school history. How does he end up in Bucknell and not in the ACC or not in the Atlantic 10 or, you know what I’m saying? Or did he have those opportunities?
COACH DAVIS: I think that everyone develops at different times. And to be honest Zach as a freshman, even as a sophomore wasn’t ready to play at that level. But he kept working, he got stronger, he kept improving his game, and now he is. Same thing goes with Nana, the same thing goes for Stephen Brown, the same thing goes with other guys on our roster other like Kimbal Mackenzie and those guys. Yeah, they weren’t there when they were 17, 18 years old, and if you’re going to play at that level at that age you’ve got to be. But if you keep working and developing, you put yourself in a position to be as good as anybody.
Q. When you see Vermont doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament, Rider, Wagner, Middle Tennessee State, Saint Mary’s — programs just like yours that are highly successful, but meanwhile Texas or other programs that don’t even have winning records in their league out of Power Five leagues get in, does that bother you?
COACH DAVIS: No. To be honest, no, we all know what the deal is when we get in it. We’re in leagues where you need to win your conference tournament to get a bid in most instances. This is my ninth year, I think, overall at Bucknell. The one year, in 2005-6, we end up as a nine seed, that might have gotten us an at-large if we’d lost. But the reality is you’re not going to get the opportunity through your schedule and things to do that.
We all know the deal going in. It’s the way it is. So I don’t really think — I’m just glad that our guys were able to rise to the occasion and find a way to play their best when we needed it. And we’re very fortunate that was the case. It’s not easy.
I do feel — I was texting with John Becker from Vermont the other day, because it’s tough. They had a great year. And to have a guy make a shot at the end to send you to the NIT and then you gotta go to Middle Tennessee State from Vermont is not easy.
I do, I feel bad for him because I understand where he’s coming from. But we know the deal. There’s no reason to complain about it or anything like that. We had an opportunity to win games and our guys got the job done. Good for them.
Q. In preparing for Michigan State, a team so highly ranked throughout the year, is there kind of one kind of focus point as far as your preparation and kind of slowing a team as talented as them down?
COACH DAVIS: You’ve seen them play; they don’t have a lot of weaknesses. No, I’ll say first off, we’re not going to try to slow them down we’re going to try to play the way we play because that’s when we’re at our best.
But they do a lot of things really well. Obviously you start with Bridges and Jackson, and they’re extremely talented. Coach Izzo does a great job. They defend and rebound. They share the ball. I think they get over 19 assists per game. One of the tops in the country.
They shoot over 50 percent from the floor. Shoot 40 percent from the 3. So what we’ve got to do is go out there, we’ve got to just try to make sure that we make it hard; that we don’t give up open jumpers; that we box out. So if they are going to get offensive rebounds, they’re going to get some, they at least have to go over us or around us, not able to go right down the lane to get them; that we attack on offense, to try to get them on their heels, make them guard us the whole possession and take shots when they’re available. But we have to make sure in order to get the good shots that we work together. If we do those things, I think we’ll have a great opportunity tomorrow.
Q. Those three guys, you’ve been with them a long time, the three seniors. I wanted to ask: What makes them special? You said you watched them flourish over these years. What makes them special and what makes your team special?
COACH DAVIS: I think what makes them special is the same thing that has made us successful as a team. Very rarely do you come across guys that are absolutely selfless. They honestly don’t care who wins the award. They don’t care who gets the shots tonight. They don’t care as long as at the end of the day we win.
Nana Foulland was Player of the Year as a junior. And Zach, Nana never said a word, Zach’s Player of the Year this year. There was never any animosity. They were all supporting each other.
Stephen Brown, I’ve been saying all year long, is the most underrated player I’ve been around in a long time. He’s going to score 1300 points and be third in our school’s history in assists, and no one ever talks about him, until recently. He never says a word. He shows up every day. He leads. He’s one of the guys, whenever he speaks, they all listen to. He never has his head down. He never complains, doesn’t care.
Zach scores 20 points in the game, I believe, in the semifinals, finals of the tournament, he scores nine. Happiest guy we won. Didn’t matter. Because they’re like that, everyone in that locker room has to be like that. When you have that, you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.
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