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Bucknell, for One, Offers No Guarantees

By John Feinstein
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page D04

It is known in college basketball as a guarantee game. A power school schedules a home game against a small school. The small school is guaranteed money -- usually $25,000 to $60,000 -- in return for showing up, knowing their players likely will suffer through a one-sided annihilation. The power school is guaranteed a victory to pad its early-season record and will walk away with a tidy profit, even after paying off the guarantee.

On very rare occasions, though, the players from the small school fail to understand their side of the bargain. They show up thinking they can compete with the power team or -- gasp! -- actually win the game. Several years ago, Lafayette College of the Patriot League -- a conference which, in 14 seasons, has never won an NCAA tournament game -- traveled to Villanova and came within seconds of winning. Seconds after the final buzzer, then-Villanova coach Steve Lappas put an arm around Lafayette Coach Fran O'Hanlon and said, "Fran, don't you remember how these guarantee games work? We guarantee you money, you guarantee us a win."

Bucknell, celebrating 69-66 victory against then 10th-ranked Pittsburgh, was supposed to provide a tuneup for the Panthers before their Big East opener. (Keith Srakocic -- AP)

_____Game of the Week_____

No. 2 Kansas at No. 8 Kentucky, 4:30 p.m. tomorrow [WUSA-9, WJZ-13]

The Jayhawks, playing their first road game of the season, will get their stiffest test since losing all-American candidate Wayne Simien, who had surgery on his left thumb Dec. 20 and hopes to return in the next week. Kansas has won three games without Simien, including close victories over Georgia Tech and Texas A&M. The Wildcats have won six games in a row with a lineup that includes three new starters -- point guard Patrick Sparks, a transfer from Western Kentucky, and freshmen Rajon Rondo and Randolph Morris. Kentucky has won 25 of 31 games in Rupp Arena against higher-ranked opponents, including 11 in a row.

_____RPI Watch_____

Illinois is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and coaches' top 25 polls, but the Illini are inexplicably No. 10 in the latest RPI projections. Illinois' strength of schedule is ranked 58th despite playing Arkansas, Cincinnati, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Missouri, Oregon and Wake Forest. But the Illini's seven other nonconference opponents have RPI rankings of 129 or lower, including five at 192 or lower. If Illinois keeps playing as well as it has during the first two months of the season, the NCAA tournament selection committee would be hard-pressed not to award the Illini a No. 1 seed. But don't expect the Big Ten schedule to enhance Illinois' strength of schedule much -- five Big Ten teams had RPI rankings of 113 or lower going into this week.

_____Top Five Mid-Majors_____

1. Gonzaga (11-2) When you've already beaten Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State and Washington, can you still be considered a mid-major?

2. George Washington (9-2) The Colonials shouldn't lose more than two Atlantic 10 games.

3. Pacific (9-2) The Tigers beat Nevada and Santa Clara -- which beat North Carolina -- lost admirably at Kansas.

4. Kent State (9-4) Flashes in the pan? Hardly. Undefeated Boston College needed a buzzer-beater to knock off the Golden Flashes.

5. Southern Illinois (11-3) The Salukis beat Texas-El Paso and Vanderbilt, but lost to Arkansas-Little Rock and Louisiana-Lafayette.

_____Men's Basketball Basics_____
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Area Colleges Section
Men's Basketball Section

Last Sunday night in Pittsburgh, Bucknell, another Patriot League team, forgot how guarantee games are supposed to work. The school accepted a $40,000 guarantee to show up in Pittsburgh in order to give the then-No. 10 Panthers a final tuneup before Big East play began Wednesday. But no one got around to explaining the script to Coach Pat Flannery. When the final buzzer sounded at Petersen Events Center, Bucknell had a stunning 69-66 victory and the attention of the entire college basketball world.

"I saw the tape of the last few seconds and then what happened when the buzzer sounded," said Bucknell junior guard Kevin Bettencourt, who hit what proved to be the game-winning free throw. "I have absolutely no memory of what I did. I saw myself running around like a crazy man with my arms in the air and I thought, 'Did I really do that?' I don't remember any of it.' "

Bettencourt may not remember those first few seconds, but it is a good bet that neither he nor anyone else connected with Bucknell will forget what they accomplished any time soon. Entering the game, Pittsburgh was undefeated, although essentially untested. The Panthers, who have reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament the past three seasons, were facing a school with an enrollment of 3,400 that only began granting basketball scholarships two years ago -- one reason the team has no senior starters.

Entering the season, many suspected this might be the best team Flannery has had in his 11 years as coach at his alma mater. When the Bison rallied from six down in the final minute to win at Yale, it was a sign that some of last season's growing pains might be paying off. A victory over Niagara was another good sign. Then came a win at Saint Joseph's, a school that was 30-2 a year ago and just missed a trip to the Final Four.

"I know [Saint Joseph's isn't] the team they were a year ago," Flannery said. "But they've got three starters back and the place was packed up there. We showed a lot of maturity playing the way we did. That's why I looked at the Pitt game and thought, 'We go in there and play with that kind of poise, we've got a chance.' My years here, we've been close against some ranked teams but never gotten over the hump at the finish."

Often, in guarantee games, especially those that involve a little school that is better than people think, the visiting team will jump to a lead. The home team will get a tongue-lashing from its coach, wake up and eventually take control. Bucknell led by as many as 12 in the first half before taking a nine-point lead into halftime. The Bucknell players understand the game well enough to know what was coming.

"We knew they were going to make a run and get back in it," Bettencourt said. "We knew we had gotten their attention the first half. And Coach told us not to expect any help from the officials, that we had to just play through the calls. We were mentally prepared for what we knew was coming."

Sure enough, Pittsburgh came out ready to play in the second half and took the lead with more than 13 minutes left. But the Panthers couldn't pull away. The lead seesawed. "I looked up with five minutes to go and we're up two," Bettencourt said. "I thought to myself, 'It's a five-minute game; we can win a five-minute game.' "

Consider this: In the 14-year history of the Patriot League, none of its schools had beaten a top 25 team, much less a top 10 team. Holy Cross came agonizingly close three times in the NCAA tournament, but never quite got to the finish line. Sunday, Bucknell got to the finish line.

"It's a great feeling because I know what went into it for all of us," Flannery said. "The best part has been the phone calls from all over the country. We've had all sorts of ex-players call because they feel like they're a part of this -- and they are. I've gotten calls from friends and old classmates I hadn't heard from in years. The other coaches in the league have called and that makes me feel great."

One of the first people to call was Holy Cross Coach Ralph Willard, who once coached Pittsburgh. "I watched the game on tape," Willard said. "It was no fluke. The better team won. I was happy for Pat."

Today, Willard has no intention of being happy for Pat. Holy Cross plays at Bucknell in the conference opener for both. Holy Cross has won three of the last four league titles. Willard and Holy Cross have been where Flannery and Bucknell want to be: the NCAA tournament.

"I wanted to be sure we stopped and savored what we had done for a couple days," Flannery said. "When I was younger I might have said, 'Okay, good win, but we have Holy Cross next, we have to move on.' Not now. I want them to enjoy this. They deserve it. What's more, I'm pretty sure I won't have any problem getting them ready for Holy Cross. For us, they're still the benchmark."

Maybe this will be the year Bucknell makes it to the tournament for the first time since 1989 -- when it played in the old East Coast Conference. Regardless, this will be remembered forever at Bucknell as the season of the Pitt Game or the Upset or, as some might put it, the night a bunch of smart kids forgot what the word "guarantee" means in the language of college basketball.

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