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Check Out the Big Brains on Bucknell

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Maybe, between the corporate sponsors and the coaches hawking cars and electronics stores and the players who count the days until they declare for the NBA, there’s room for college students in the NCAA tournament after all.

Bucknell is the only school in the field that graduated 100% of its players in the most recent survey. The Bison have a center who’s continually late for practice because he has engineering labs. Three-fifths of the starters have grade-point averages of 3.4 or better. And for the second consecutive year, the team advanced to the second round of the tournament.

The Bison’s 59-55 victory over Arkansas on Friday wasn’t as shocking as their upset of Kansas last year. In 2005 Bucknell was seeded 14th and took out a third-seeded team. This year, after a regular season that included a victory at Syracuse, an undefeated run through the Patriot League and the first Associated Press top-25 ranking in school history, the Bison were seeded ninth.

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Even if Bucknell is sitting at the kids’ table for the big family gathering, at least the Bison have shown they belong, that it’s possible to mix academics with big-time sports.

“We are a bunch of brainiacs, but I think we also can play ball really well,” said Charles Lee, the Patriot League player of the year.

And so we all learned a lesson Friday: 3.4 GPAs are nice, but three-point shots are even better when it’s tourney time. After Arkansas center Steven Hill served early notice that the lane would be off-limits to Bucknell by blocking four shots in the first half, the Bison did all of their damage from outside. They made 11 of 21 three-point attempts, while making only six of 23 attempts from inside the arc.

“The three-pointer is a part of the game,” Bucknell Coach Pat Flannery said. (With a coach named Pat Flannery, was there any way the Bison could lose on St. Patrick’s Day?)

“If you play strength to strength, obviously we had some guys that can shoot the basketball around the horn. I think we took advantage of the situation. We played to our strength and they played to their strength, and we knocked down shots.”

It took Arkansas too long to get to its strength, and that’s what did in the Razorbacks and subdued their large contingent of fans in American Airlines Center. But when Arkansas sprang a full-court press on Bucknell after falling behind by eight, it threw the Bison for a loop and enabled the Razorbacks to tie the score. Then Donald Brown broke the tie -- and the press -- by spotting Lee alone under the hoop and whipping him a pass from halfcourt for the layup with a minute remaining.

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It was a great athletic play, the type the Bison want you to know they’re capable of making.

Let’s not get carried away and pretend the Bison are working through quadratic equations on the bench during timeouts. In a lot of ways they’re similar to every other kid in a uniform. When Lee was asked what he wants to do when he graduates, he said: “Play.” In America, Europe, wherever.

“SATs do not [translate] into basketball intelligence, I guarantee you,” Flannery said. “What’s happened with us is we’ve gotten some kids who have the SATs, but they bought into being basketball players.”

That’s Coach Flannery, not Professor Flannery. He takes hoops so seriously that on a couple of occasions he had to leave the team -- once during the middle of a game -- because of stress attacks.

And the program didn’t get better by accident. The school spent more than $46 million on a recreation and athletics center, which includes the Bison’s home arena. It also made the decision to break with more than a century of tradition and began awarding athletic scholarships three years ago.

“They’re kids that are coming in very confident,” Flannery said of his new, higher-caliber recruits. “The academic standards will never change. Our administration saw that we can do that academically while playing good basketball.”

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But if it makes you feel better, if you still want to believe in Bucknell, know that the Bison’s two best players are seniors who were part of the last class before athletic scholarships came in. They’re also two of the starters with 3.4 GPAs. Kevin Bettencourt wants to be a history teacher. Lee is a thoughtful type who wrote memorial messages on his game socks to honor Tylor Pfeiffer, an 11-year-old Bucknell ball boy who was killed in an apartment fire Feb. 28, and Sophia Goodman, one of assistant coach Bryan Goodman’s prematurely born quadruplets who died Monday.

Bettencourt and Lee also combined to make nine of 17 three-pointers and score 42 points Friday.

They don’t mind that Bucknell pushes its brainy status, and among the large stacks of media guides in the press room, Bucknell was the only school offering copies of an online column written by the university president touting the team’s academic achievements.

Call them the smart ones if you’d like.

“As long as people acknowledge that we’re a pretty good basketball team too,” Bettencourt said.

Give them that. At the moment, they can claim more NCAA tournament victories than Texas, Alabama, Louisiana State, Pittsburgh, UCLA, Kansas, Syracuse and Iowa over the last 12 months.

The dream will end Sunday against top-seeded Memphis, even though Memphis Coach John Calipari said, “Believe me, I’m scared to death about this one.” (Keep in mind, the day before, Calipari said Marcus Camby was one of the 10 greatest players in college basketball history).

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Look at it this way: At least the Bucknell kids can get back to studying.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read more by Adande, go to latimes.com/adandeblog.

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