This season, most of the NEC teams will take on a Patriot League team at least once in their non-conference schedule. Lafayette (seven games) and Lehigh (six games) should be part of the NEC standings, since more than half of their non-conference schedule will be made up of NEC teams.
In an attempt to better understand the Patriot League, I brought in Rush the Court and City of Basketball Love writer, Kevin Doyle. Kevin is a Holy Cross grad who does a terrific job writing about the league, therefore I’m thankful he spent some time to answer my questions. Give him a follow @KLDoyle11.
1) In your Rush the Court conference primer, you have Bucknell winning the league. Why do you think they’ll pull ahead of Lehigh? And how realistic is it for the league to get two NCAA bids?
Truth be told, it is a flip of a coin between Bucknell and Lehigh—the teams are that close to each other. Both clubs have their marquee player returning—if you haven’t heard of C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala by this point just throw in the towel and call it quits—and most of their supporting cast returns as well … Graduation claimed one starter from Bucknell (Bryan Cohen) and one for Lehigh (Jordan Hamilton), and Bucknell returns 78% of their scoring with Lehigh returning 82%.
One would think the slight edge should be given to Lehigh, considering they won the season series last year and were the team who advanced to the NCAA Tournament and knocked off Duke … That being said, I like Bucknell by the slightest of margins. Here’s why…
Despite graduating Bryan Cohen—the best defender in the Patriot League the past three seasons, Lehigh loses three players who saw significant minutes last year. All of a sudden, the Mountain Hawks’ frontcourt is very thin and where the production comes from outside of Holden Greiner and Gabe Knutson is unknown.
McCollum will get his points—he always does—but aside from Greiner and Knutson Lehigh’s frontcourt is a total mystery. Conroy Baltimore, a rising sophomore who averaged a mere 4.9 minutes and 1.4 points last year, is the only other forward with significant game experience.
Meanwhile, the clear strength of Bucknell is their frontcourt as they return Muscala, along with Joe Willman, Brian Fitzpatrick, and expect freshman Dom Hoffman to step in and contribute from day one. Simply put, there is less room for error in Bethlehem compared to Lewisburg.
As to whether the Patriot League has a realistic shot at earning two NCAA Tournament bids, I think it is very slim, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened. If there was an at-large bid coming from the PL, Bucknell would be the team earning it. In analyzing Bucknell’s and Lehigh’s non-conference schedule, the Bison have far more opportunities to pick up resume building wins than Lehigh does. Dave Paulsen has constructed a non-conference schedule for Bucknell that has a nice balance of reach games (Purdue and Missouri), an opportunity for a win against a BCS team (Penn State), and a slew of very good mid-major teams (George Mason, New Mexico State, Kent State, La Salle, and Princeton). The only “bad” games on the slate come against Dartmouth and St. Francis (PA).
2) Is there any chance whatsoever that another team like American, Holy Cross, or Lafayette could emerge into the PL top 2? Or is this clearly a two team league?
Holy Cross and Lafayette—no shot. These two teams simply lost too much production from last year and will struggle to replace it.
American, however, has a legitimate shot to infiltrate the top two. Midway through the summer months this wasn’t a possibility, but then Jeff Jones landed Austin Carroll—a transfer from Rutgers and highly touted recruit coming out of prep school—who is eligible to play right away. Shortly after the addition of Carroll, American was greeted with more good news when Stephen Lumpkins elected to hang up his baseball cleats—Lumpkins left after his junior year to pursue a baseball career after being drafted by the Kansas City Royals—and return for his senior season. These are two impact players who will contribute immediately and be fixtures in the starting lineup.
Carroll and Lumpkins aside, American also has Jeff Jones patrolling the bench who has proven to be one of the best and most consistent coaches in the Patriot League since coming over from Virginia in 2000. Jones has never had worse than a .500 record in the league, and has advanced to the semi-finals of the Patriot League tournament ever year.
Word out of the American camp is that Jones is implementing a few wrinkles on defense to presumably slow up Bucknell’s and Lehigh’s potent offenses. Jones spoke to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette at Patriot League media day and made it known he was studying film of Holy Cross’ defense while Ralph Willard was the coach. Willard was famous for implementing a 2-3 match-up zone that gave opposing offenses fits. Perhaps Jones recognizes that, in order to have a shot at beating Bucknell and Lehigh, playing traditional defenses is suicide.
3) Lehigh takes on five NEC opponents this season. Obvious C.J. McCollum is an amazing talent, so is there anyway to stop him? Or is the best approach to take out the rest of his supporting cast (which includes preseason All-PL selection Knutson) and give McCollum his 20-25 points? Briefly, how were some mid-major teams successful in beating Lehigh last season?
A passive approach on defense against C.J. McCollum with the hopes of slowing up the other four players on the floor isn’t the way to go about beating Lehigh. Duke played Lehigh man to man the entire game, and McCollum torched them for 30 points. At the same time, it would be foolish to exert an entire defensive effort against McCollum as Lehigh does have other capable and proven scorers.
With McCollum and a lightning quick point guard in Mackey McKnight in the backcourt, I firmly believe a match-up zone defense that shadows McCollum with and without the ball would be most effective. This is not something used in the Patriot League as many of the coaches favor a man-to-man approach on defense—perhaps this is why Jeff Jones is looking to add a wrinkle to American’s defense—but the match-up neutralizes a dominant scorer like McCollum without neglecting to defend other scorers.
One also must remain cognizant that it is impossible to make the conscious choice of focusing exclusively on McCollum versus the supporting cast (and vice versa)—they are not mutually exclusive. McCollum moves so well off the ball and has really improved as a distributor—his assists almost doubled from his sophomore to junior season—that looking to limit his scoring chances doesn’t necessarily adversely affect Lehigh’s offense as a whole.
4) Lafayette has a heavy dose of NEC games in their non-conference schedule. The latest word is their talented, yet oft-injured PG Tony Johnson is in a walking boot. Have you heard anything about the status of Johnson? Is there anyone on that roster who could step up, or are the Leopards a 3-5 win team in the Patriot League if Johnson misses a significant amount of time?
Lafayette will go as far as Tony Johnson takes them. In my mind, he is far and away the best point guard in the Patriot League and is the only shot Lafayette has to remain respectable in the league, especially after losing three impact players to graduation.
With regard to Johnson’s status, he did not play in Lafayette’s scrimmage against Columbia, and one would have to figure that his status against St. Francis (NY) to begin the season is uncertain. As a result of past injuries, Johnson has pin in his foot and was forced to miss some of the games Lafayette played during a summer tour through Europe … If last year is any indication, Johnson did not play a minute of basketball in the Leopards’ non-conference schedule—Lafayette went 5-10 as a result—but began to play once Patriot League action began and Lafayette got out to a 6-3 start in the league. O’Hanlon has been around the block many times (he is entering his 18th season with Lafayette) and understands that if Lafayette is to have any success in the Patriot League it hinges on Johnson’s health.
What makes Johnson’s injury of such importance to the overall success of Lafayette is that O’Hanlon has constructed his offense to rely so heavily on the point guard. The Leopards are not known for bruising forwards and a strong inside game, but rather a European style predicated on heady guard play and forwards that can step outside and hit the three.
5) Finally, Navy plays Monmouth, Bryant, and Mount St. Mary’s this season. Coming off a dismal year, is there any hope for Ed DeChellis’ team?
There are two cardinal rules for a fan when watching an exhibition game: 1) Every healthy body entering the gym leaves walking out of the gym healthy. 2) The result of the game doesn’t matter.
Bearing these two rules in mind, one cannot help but be alarmed by Navy’s performance against Slippery Rock in an exhibition game as they lost 79-56. The Mids shot just 19-66 from the field and were losing 41-20 at halftime. It was very obvious that things would not be easy for DeChellis in year #2 after losing Jordan Sugars to graduation and J.J. Avila left Navy for academic reasons.
I am a believer in Ed DeChellis and think he will find some success at Navy, but not this year. He has an extraordinarily young team, and simply not enough talent to be competitive in the Patriot League.
A special thanks to Kevin for enlightening us on the Patriot League. There are some tremendous NEC/Patriot League battles in the non-conference season, which will be fascinating to watch!