WORCESTER, Mass. -- Bucknell star Mike Muscala plastered a vending machine tattoo of a red guitar on his calf two years ago to appease his 13-year-old half-sister, Madeline.
The Bison assistant coaches saw it as the perfect opportunity to punk coach Dave Paulsen, and they began spinning tales about the 6-foot-11 Muscala playing in a hard partying garage band. Soon enough, Paulsen began to ponder this sudden life change in his once-in-a-lifetime player.
"I'm like, is he busting my chops?" Paulsen recalled. "Is he serious? Do I have to pretend I'm interested in his rock band?"
Muscala, it turns out, actually prefers rap. The joke disappeared faster than the fake ink. And the only stages Muscala projects to be starring on soon are the NCAA tournament and the NBA.
A true senior, Muscala has developed into arguably the country's most productive player. He's become a household name with NBA scouts and is the only player in the country to be in the top 20 in scoring (19.4), top 15 in blocks (2.86) and top 10 in rebounding (11.1).
He's part of a historic uptick for the Patriot League, which has gone from one player drafted in its history (Colgate's Adonal Foyle in 1997) to perhaps two being drafted this season.
Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum torched Duke for 30 points in a historic NCAA upset last season. But a foot injury in early January has stunted and possibly ended his senior season.
That leaves Muscala poised to become an indelible character come March, as he's led the Bison to an 18-4 record this season, including wins over Purdue, George Mason and La Salle.
Along the way, he's jotted down rap lyrics, bonded with his classmates and put together a career where he's made leaps every year. It's probably a good thing the garage band broke up before it started.
"Where he goes in the draft, I'm not positive," said Dan Barto, an IMG workout guru who trained Muscala over the summer. "But he's going to will his way into a rotation and not make mistakes. There's no doubt that he'll have an eight or 10-year NBA career."
Mike Muscala and his father, Bob, talk every Sunday night at 8 p.m. During his freshman year, the conversation rounded back to Muscala's potential reward for becoming an Academic All-American. Bob Muscala said he'd been saving money, something made easier since his son is on full scholarship, and said he'd help him buy a car to upgrade the 2005 Acura he's been driving around campus.
Mike Muscala, who is adored around the Bucknell program for his quick and dry wit, then asked his father, "What if I get to be an All-American?"
Bob Muscala responded: "Mike, if you get to be an All-American, I'll buy you an airplane."
Mike responded: "Dad, if I get to be an All-American I'll buy YOU an airplane."
A few months later, Bob Muscala relayed that conversation to Paulsen. He quickly responded: "Bob, you better start saving your money."
Some of the sophistication in Muscala's game can be traced to a decision as an eighth grader to eschew his normal suburban travel team and play for an inner-city one. Muscala was tired of playing center, and the new team -- the Midtown Kings in Minneapolis -- gave him the opportunity to expand his game and shoot three-pointers.
"He learned to shoot threes and shoot from the outside," Bob Muscala said, pointing out that his son was the only white player. "He also learned from the culture. It made it easier for him at the high school level and collegiate level."
Muscala began his career as a pick-and-pop jump shooter with good success, averaging just under 10 points and five rebounds as a freshman. Paulsen challenged him to go inside more and he responded, winning league player of the year honors as a sophomore and leading Bucknell to the NCAA tournament. He found his first glimmers of fame that year in an upset of Richmond, hitting a Laettner-esque three-pointer at the buzzer.
Paulsen knew he had something, so he picked the brains of NBA scouts at the Final Four about how to test Muscala. One suggested that he should end up with a Kenneth-Faried-esque rebound every three minutes. "That translates," Paulsen said of rebounding as an NBA trait.
Muscala snared a rebound every 3.2 minutes last year and is up to one every 2.9 minutes this year. Muscala's best resume builder for the NBA may be his performances against top-flight competition, as he had 25 and 14 in a two-point loss at Missouri, 24 and nine against New Mexico State and 16 and 15 against George Mason.
Perhaps as important, Muscala has earned a reputation around the Patriot League for hitting game-winning shots. He has three in his career, including a put-back with less than a second to go at American on Wednesday night to allow Bucknell to sneak out a 56-55 win. The big moment clearly doesn't faze Muscala, as he had 30 in the Patriot League title game loss last year and rebounded with 20 points against Arizona in an NIT win. Wildcats Coach Sean Miller swears Muscala will be a first-round pick.
"I've never coached a kid who has worked harder," Paulsen said. "He is such a hard worker. Almost to a point where it's like, 'You can't dunk it so hard every time. We need you to play 30-something minutes a game.'"
Early on in Muscala's freshmen year, he had a day at practice that made the Bucknell coaches tingle with possibility. Muscala flashed paint dominance, his feathery touch and showed the potential to be one of the elite players in all of college basketball. He looked so good that day that Bison assistant Aaron Kelly compared him to Stephen Curry, perhaps the most flattering reference in recent mid-major basketball history.
"I wonder if those guys at Davidson," Kelly asked, "felt this that way with Curry his freshman year?"
When a player of Muscala's size, talent and potential lands in the Patriot League, the question is how exactly did he end up there. Muscala hails from Rosevile, Minn., a suburb tucked between Minnesota's twin cities.
Minnesota has earned a unique recruiting niche as a place savvy mid-majors coaches mine for overlooked talent. There's just one Division I basketball school in Minnesota, and the Gopher have 13 scholarships like everyone else. Consider that everyone from Troy Bell (Boston College) to Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin) has slipped out of Minnesota. But perhaps more apt are players like Ryan Wittman (Cornell), Matt Janning (Northeastern), Noah Dahlman (Wofford) and Nate Wolters (South Dakota State) becoming program altering players.
"In the last 10 years it's really taken off," said Minnesota-native Dane Fischer, who found and recruited Muscala to Bucknell. "It went from a state with three or four Division I kids every year to now where there's 15 to 20 almost every year."
Paulsen got a tip on Muscala from a coach he'd hired at Division III Williams to be with him, Alex Lloyd, who he couldn't take to Bucknell. Lloyd, now with the Atlanta Hawks, worked Harvard's camp that summer and talked up Muscala. Paulsen immediately called Fischer, who hails from Rochester, Minn. Fischer told Paulsen that he'd spoken to Muscala on the phone the week prior.
"Good," Paulsen joked, "you've got a job for another week or two."
Fischer scouted Muscala at an off-the-beaten path AAU tournament in Indianapolis. Fischer's old college teammate, then-Cornell assistant Zach Spiker, spotted him there. "He looked like he swallowed a canary," jokes Spiker, now the head coach at Army.
Paulsen got game film of Muscala and watched it on a flight to Orlando for the AAU nationals. He sat in the bleachers, watching players headed to Big Ten and Big East schools.
"I'm like, this kid is way better," Paulsen kept saying about Muscala as he watched prospect after prospect. Paulsen didn't waste any time. Muscala essentially visited Bucknell the day Paulsen's moving truck arrived in Lewisburg, Pa. Muscala committed in his office the summer of his junior year, with Bucknell beating out Santa Clara and Cornell.
In an era where transferring up has become vogue, Muscala sounded slightly insulted when a reporter asked if leaving ever emerged as an option.
"There was never a thought in my mind," he said. "Coming to Bucknell, it's hard to describe. The family that I've been a part of for the last four years, it's been the best four years of my life."
Muscala's sense of humor may best be summed up in his tweaks at Paulsen, the lifer coach who worked at St. Lawrence and Le Moyne before a highly successful stint at Williams that included a Division III national title in 2003. Paulsen's voice sounds as if it's always hooked up to a megaphone, whether in practice or casual conversation.
"He just bellows, everywhere he goes," says Muscala with a quick smile. "It's always the same volume."
One of Paulsen's great quirks is his six-pack-a-day habit of Diet Mountain Dew, which he transitions to after his morning coffee. When asked for a favorite story about Paulsen, Muscala recalls Paulsen's frequent treks to the back of the bus thanks to his vice.
"He goes to the bathroom a lot, all the Diet Mountain Dews he drinks, I guess he has to pee them out," Muscala said. "It'll be like 3 a.m. and we're all sprawled out and sometimes after a tough loss on the ride back he'll be crawling over everybody. I'll always remember the smell of the hand sanitizer when he walks back."
Muscala paused for a second: "At least he washed his hands."
Paulsen clearly adores Muscala and the Bucknell senior class, which includes dynamic guard Bryson Johnson and savvy forward Joe Willman. All have scored 1,000 points. All made Dean's List last semester and, yes, Muscala is on track to be an Academic All-American. Johnson grew up in a small Nova Scotia fishing village where his mom coached his high school basketball team his freshman year. Paulsen credits Willman for being the "smartest player" he ever coached. Willman, a gritty 6-7 forward, benefits greatly from all the attention on Muscala. "He's batting third ahead of Barry Bonds," Spiker said of Willman. "He's going to get some pitches."
And while a pro career awaits, Muscala is relishing the final run with his teammates. Long bus trips and all. He's perfectly happy at low-key Bucknell, where a beat writer doesn't cover the team for most road games and he has less than 500 Twitter followers. (Muscala is very happy his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, just joined Twitter).
With McCollum hurt, Bucknell is the league favorite even after a home loss to Lehigh last week. Muscala said he's focused on changing the ending from last year.
"It's going to be emotional when it's over," he said. "I've really grown up with these guys."
And while his garage band never took off, Muscala still has a hand in music. He's known for writing rap lyrics on the bus -- Drake is his model -- and occasionally sharing with teammates. There's no release date planned.
"I always say, maybe there's a niche for a 6-11 guy from the Minnesota suburbs in the rap game," he deadpans. "I don't know. Probably not, I feel like it may be so strange that it might work."
Muscala paused before neatly summing up his both his rap career and basketball career path.
"I don't," he said, "really fit the mold."