WASHINGTON -- Lasell Gymnasium is a 125-year-old gray stone building that sits at the corner of Spring Street and Route 2, where the latter highway bisects Williams College in the northwestern Massachusetts village of Williamstown. Lasell looks like a church (and, in fact, has a bell tower) and the gym inside is ringed by an overhanging, second-floor balcony running track that discourages jump shots from the deep corner.
The last varsity game played in Lasell Gym was on March 7, 1987, when Williams defeated Babson, 92-82, in an ECAC Tournament game. The last point in that game -- the last point in Lasell history -- was scored on a free throw by Williams senior reserve guard Dave Paulsen, who played so little in his career that longtime Williams coach Harry Sheehy affectionately called him "The Human Victory Cigar," because Paulsen's insertion into a game had the same meaning as Red Auerbach torching one of his stogies: The game was over.
What this has to do with March Madness is nothing. And everything. Behind every memorable moment in the NCAA tournament there is a journey (multiple journeys, really). From that single free throw in that musty old building (trust me on the musty because I played there, too, but even deeper on the bench than Paulsen; I couldn't be trusted with playing time even when games were safely in hand), Paulsen has traveled 24 years on the basketball highway and Thursday night walks onto the biggest stage in the college game. He is the head coach at Bucknell, champion of the Patriot League. They play against Big East champion Connecticut here at the Verizon Center in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Connecticut is a No. 3 seed and just reeled off five consecutive victories to win the Big East title. The Huskies' best player is Kemba Walker, a celebrity superstar in the college game. Their coach is Jim Calhoun, who has won 840 Division I games (but will sit out the first three of 2011-'12 as punishment levied by the NCAA for recruiting violations).
Bucknell is a No. 14 seed and at the end of November the Bison were 2-6 before winning 23 of their next 25 games. The kid checking Walker is 6-5 junior Bryan Cohen, a decidedly noncelebrity non-superstar (albeit with a reputation as a stout defender). Paulsen has 794 fewer Division I victories than Calhoun (although he also won 262 games at the Division II and III levels) and has never been punished by anybody (unless you consider coaching JV soccer at Williams a punishment; more on that later).
The contrasts -- in seeding, budget, talent and coaching dossiers and pretty much everything except the fact that Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (Bucknell) and Storrs, Connecticut are both leafy and rural -- make this game exactly the type of matchup on which the NCAA tournament thrives. Sixteen times in the history of the 64-team tournament a No. 14 seed has beaten a No. 3 seed (and twice a fourteen seed has reached the Sweet Sixteen, although not since 1997). It is the mere scent of possibility is what draws eyeballs to screens (well that, and bracket pools).
And also this: On March 18, 2005, Bucknell was a No. 14 seed and earned the first NCAA Tournament victory in its history with a 64-63 win over No. 3 seed Kansas. (And did it again the next, year, but as a much stronger No. 9 seed, with a 59-55 win over Arkansas in Dallas). Paulsen has embraced this brief history of success. After Bucknell wrapped up the Patriot League with a dominating 72-57 win over Lafayette on March 11, Paulsen went into the locker room and told his team, "Don't get excited because you're going to the NCAA tournament, get excited because Bucknell has won in the NCAA tournament.''
It's easy for March Madness interlopers to move on quickly from the epic upset. But closer to home, those upsets live much longer. For Bucknell, that Kansas win resonates six years later, and not just emotionally. "In all honesty, every kid in that locker room is here because of Kansas," says Paulsen, who was hired at Bucknell in the spring of 2008. "Every coach is here because of Kansas. There were some other opportunities for me. But those opportunities came at places where there was no legacy of success."
Patience could not have come easily for Paulsen, given his career path. After his modest athletic career at Williams (which was more than balanced by a spectacular academic career; Paulsen was Phi Beta Kappa -- an honor reserved for the top five percent of the graduating class -- at one of the most selective colleges in the country), Paulsen stayed on campus to assist Sheehy (who won 75.7 percent of his games in a 17-year coaching career and is now the athletic director at Dartmouth) and also work as the college's sports information director.
(Before yesterday's practice at the Verizon Center, Paulsen was noting that there are several coaches in the NCAA tournament with coaching experience below the Division I level: Michigan's John Belien, West Virginia's Bob Huggins and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, among others. Point made. However, Paulsen is almost surely the only ex-SID coaching a team in the tournament).
Paulsen left D3 in 1989 and spent a year as a graduate assistant under Steve Fisher at Michigan in the year after the Wolverines won the national title, followed by five seasons as an assistant at Cleveland State. "Then," says Paulsen, "Fourteen years as a small-college head coach." Three at St. Lawrence in Canton, N.Y., three at LeMoyne, a Division II school in Syracuse, and then eight back at his alma mater.
Under Sheehy, Williams had become a respected Division III power, with trips to the NCAA Final Four in 1997 and '98. Paulsen took the next step, winning the national title in 2003 and losing the national championship game the next year. That doesn't mean the work was glamorous and it absolutely was not Division I in any regard except that both keep score.
In addition to coaching the varsity basketball team, Paulsen also taught physical education classes and coached junior varsity soccer. "I don't know anything about soccer," says Paulsen. "I would just say `Well struck!' My Division I friends would call me and say `What are you doing?' I'd say, `I'm driving the van to Western New England College.'" Meaning: In Division III subvarsity sports, the coach is also the bus driver. And probably the trainer.
If that perspective allows Paulsen -- and by extension, his Bucknell players -- to better appreciate the stage on which they're playing Thursday, it doesn't change the fundamental task. "Coaching is coaching, no matter where you are," Paulsen says. That said, coaching Bucknell against Connecticut pushes the envelope.
Normally, Paulsen preaches an aggressive man-to-man defensive style that includes contesting three-point shots. That would be dangerous against a bigger, more talented team. "Our biggest challenge is to not let them kill us on the boards," Paulsen says. "In addition to a kid named Walker, who might be a little bit of a problem."
Paulsen laughed at that one, standing no more than 100 feet from the edge of the floor in a 20,000-seat arena, less than 24 hours from a game in the biggest event in college basketball. And a long way from a meaningless free throw in an old gym that looks like a church.