Patriot League Preview – A Friendly E-mail Discussion

With just two days before college basketball tips off, Kevin Doyle and I engaged in some friendly Patriot League banter over e-mail. We already gave you our preseason all-conference teams/individual awards and top impact rookies, so instead of writing up a boring primer, we decided to chat it up regarding this league. Of course, feel free to add your opinion to the message board. Enjoy!

Ryan: Kevin, let’s start from the top. Unlike Boston U last year, there aren’t any teams that stand out for me as the bona fide favorite to win the PL championship; in fact, I would personally lump my top-tier into 4 teams – American, Lafayette, Army and Holy Cross. American is my pick now, because I believe in Mike Brennan. I mean how could you not after last year?! I thought the bloom was off the rose after his team dropped 5 of their last 8 in the regular season, but then they dominated in the PL tournament. The Eagles did lose a terrific all-around player in Troy Wroblicky (I still can’t believe he shot 73% from the FT line with a one-handed free throw), but I think Kevin Panzer will fill in some and the other upperclassmen pieces (Gardner, Reed, Schoof) are obviously excellent.

I know you like Lafayette more than most, but aren’t you scared about the Leopards’ defense? Only once in the KenPom era has a Fran O’Hanlon team given up less than 1.00 point per possession, and everyone knows you need defense to win the PL. American was the only team in the past 13 years (2008) to win the title despite finishing in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency. Can we really expect Fran’s group to figure it out after their atrocious defensive effort last season (1.15 pts allowed per poss)? Or will they be like LIU Brooklyn when they won three straight NEC championships (2011-2013) thanks to their unbelievable, high-tempo offense powered by Jason Brickman, Jamal Olasewere and Julian Boyd? Will Henrichs, Scott, Trist, Lindner and company bludgeon their opponents to death with final scores of 86-80?

Kevin: I, too, have American at the top of the Patriot League, but it is not without some trepidation. Tony Wroblicky transformed from a role player as a junior, where he played second fiddle to Stephen Lumpkins, to the centerpiece of American’s championship team last season. He was a quick learner in Mike Brennan’s offense, and it remains to be seen if Nevada transfer Kevin Panzer will successfully slide into the center position that spends so much time passing around the free throw line. Fortunately, he has had a season learning under Brennan, so the transition may be seamless.

I like Lafayette, as well as Army — two teams who finished in the bottom half of the Patriot League in defensive efficiency — for the simple fact both teams return everybody. And when I say everybody, I truly mean everybody. Lafayette was picked to contend for the league title last season, but an injury to Seth Hinrichs derailed their season. It certainly is a fair point that O’Hanlon’s teams are traditionally not strong defensively, but if you look at the 2012-13 team — a team led by Tony Johnson at point guard, but relied heavily on its underclassmen — they finished third in defense in the PL. If the Leopards’ defense is, at the very least, adequate, they will challenge for the championship.

Are we overlooking Bucknell, at all? Sure, they lost their top player in Cameron Ayers, but return a fair amount of production from a team that went 11-7 in the PL. Not to mention, they have the top recruits in the league, namely Nana Foulland who is expected to start right away. May the Bison break into the top-tier?

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Seth Hinrichs (left) leads a high-powered Lafayette offense. (Photo credit: City of Basketball Love)

Ryan: Bucknell can certainly break into that top-tier – in Dave Paulsen we trust after all. But as you mentioned, Ayers is a big loss, so where exactly will his possessions go? Chris Hass is a nice player, but we need to see how he’ll respond as one of the main guys on the opponent’s scouting report. For now, I think fifth place is appropriate, yet the Bison certainly have the pieces and the defense (0.98 pts allowed per possession in PL play last year) in place.

They need some unknowns like Foulland, Ryan Frazier and John Azzinaro to step up (side note – I have a hunch Azzinaro will have a breakout season!) whereas the Americans, Armys and Lafayettes of the conference have known commodities who should play well.

Now Kevin, I can’t let you get away without commenting on Holy Cross. You are the king of the message board over there concerning all things Milan Brown! Where are the Crusaders finishing this year? Is this the year of Milan or is he destined for the CBS Sports Network broadcast booth alongside Chris Spatola next season?! You have to admit he’s brought in some nice pieces over the past couple of years. Dude can recruit!

(Related note: Recently I had a coach privately tell me that when Milan gets his own guys in, which he obviously has, that they’ll run through a wall for him. As challenged as he may be as an x’s and o’s coach, he builds a fantastic loyalty with his team so the “chemistry” factor will not be an issue.)

I really like Alexander, Thompson and Green. They will struggle to replace Dudzinski offensively, but I have no reservations in saying that Holy Cross will be in the upper tier of the PL defensively. What say you, Mr. Holy Cross?

Kevin: After the first three seasons for Milan Brown at Holy Cross, he had just 35 wins (8, 15, and 12, respectively) with his in-game coaching looking most suspect. The hope was for many Crusader fans, however, was that Brown would be an elite recruiter. While he has had a few misses on recruits, there’s no doubting he has brought in a few high-caliber Patriot League players, namely Anthony Thompson and Malcolm Miller.

Expectations have never been higher for the Crusaders under Brown. This is the first season where he’s had a team comprised with four classes of his recruits. After three sub-par seasons and one which saw HC reach the CIT, this has to be the one for Brown. I have HC in the upper half of the PL, but do think they will miss Dudzinski more than some think. We love to analyze Ken Pomeroy’s numbers around these parts, and there’s a reason that he has HC as 174th in the preseason after finishing 157th last season. Think about that. A team that only graduates one player projects to be worse! That tells you how important Dudzinski was to the team. In order for HC to contend for a championship, they will need Malachi Alexander to take a big step forward; Alexander had a great non-conference in his freshman season, but struggled during league play. Receiving production out of 7-foot Matt Husek would also be a huge plus. HC is thin up front, but their guard play may be enough for a top four finish.

We’ve touched a lot on the top tier teams, but what team in the bottom half do you think has a shot at pulling an American this season? Is it a veteran Colgate team who has Pat Moore returning for a fifth year, and has perhaps the most underrated point guard in mid-major land Austin Tillotson running the show for them? If not them, who?

Ryan: That’s a really tough call. You mentioned Colgate; they were so unlucky last season in close games. But I can’t get over how much of a jump-shooting team they were. Plus their inability to generate offense late and get to the charity stripe likely didn’t help. We both love Tillotson a ton (we nearly put him on our preseason all-conference first team after all), but how sustainable are his two and three-point shooting percentages last year of 64% and 48%, respectively? I reckon he won’t repeat that, especially without Murphy Burnatowski absorbing the majority of the opponent’s attention. Still, Colgate as the sixth team with solid upside sounds right to me; there’s are a lot of productive veterans on Matt Langel’s roster.

I’m not terribly high on Boston University and it isn’t because I just enjoy getting a rise out of the angry BU fans on the PL message boards (that doesn’t hurt though!). Joe Jones can recruit, no doubt, but I’m sorry you simply can’t replace Maurice Watson, D.J. Irving and Dom Morris overnight. They’ll be formidable and have their moments — they’ll still be very good defensively, I think, with that SMU transfer protecting the rim — but can you justify BU finishing in the upper half of the league given what they lost? 73% of their possession minutes have disappeared.

Do I really have to pick a sleeper among this group? I guess now is the perfect time to break out your man love for the Mountain Hawks. Have at it!

As a sophmore, Tim Kempton may already be one of the best big men in the Patriot League. (Photo credit: City of Basketball Love)

As a sophomore, Tim Kempton may already be one of the best big men in the Patriot League. (Photo credit: City of Basketball Love)

Kevin: Lehigh is a real unknown this season, to me. They return everyone with the exception of four-year starting point guard Mackey McKnight, but struggled last season finishing with a 7-11 record in the Patriot League. Freshman Kahron Ross is expected to step in and start from day one at point guard — a serious bode of confidence from the Doctor (Brett Reed) that he feels comfortable giving Ross the keys to the car right away. Ross should receive a nice welcome to Division 1 basketball having to cope with the vaunted Villanova defense in his first game.

The good news for Lehigh is that Tim Kempton, who is arguably the best big man in the league after just one season, is back for his sophomore year. Kempton is a true 6-foot-10 center with back-to-the-basket moves that many Patriot League guys of his stature don’t develop until later in their careers, or if at all. He’s the most sure-thing Reed has coming back for Lehigh. What makes me uneasy about the Mountain Hawks is simply not knowing whether Austin Price and Jesse Chuku will take that next step forward. Price struggled finding his shot throughout his entire freshman year (37.4% FG), and seemed far too passive on the offensive end settling for outside shots. It’s plainly obvious that Chuku is one of the premier athletes in the Patriot League, but he is a raw talent. If these two elevate their games, Lehigh may be looking at an upper-half finish.

How about the Mids, Ryan? Ed DeChellis is a putrid 20-70 in three seasons in Annapolis, but finally has a group of kids that are no longer underclassmen. Worth Smith and Brandon Venturini return for their senior seasons, and point guard Tilman Dunbar is back at the Academy after being suspended for violating Naval Academy rules — he played in just nine games last season. Does Navy have a shot at accomplishing what their peers up in West Point have done in recent years?

Ryan: Oh the Mids… I want to see Navy do well since I live 40 minutes from the Naval Academy, but here’s the thing. Until Tilman Dunbar becomes a star I just don’t see a big jump out of this roster. Without Dunbar for most of last season, the Mids were awful offensively (0.93 ppp, 43.7% 2PT, 63% FT) mainly because they fell in love with the jump shot. There are too many guys who can’t or prefer not to create off the dribble and that makes DeChellis’ team easy to defend. I still don’t understand why an athletic 6’6″ Worth Smith took nearly half of his shots (47%) as mid-range to long 2s. Attack the rim, Worth! He has the ability to do that, unlike Venturini, Zach Fong, and the oft-injured Kendall Knorr. But Dunbar creating will help those aforementioned spot-up shooters get better looks at the basket.

The injury bug has hit Navy pretty good this offseason – there were a couple of breakout sophomore candidates (Abruzzo ACL tear, Mike Brown broken jaw) that will significant miss time. I still think they’ll be better than Loyola and they could creep into the top 6/7 if everything breaks right (I did hear that Navy bettered James Madison in a closed scrimmage by 12 points recently). G.G. Smith’s team will be so inexperienced, but at least he has a nice freshmen core over there in Baltimore. Let the full rebuild begin!

Really, there are 8 teams that can make some serious noise in this league. Any final thoughts/bold predictions from the Big Apple Buckets resident PL expert??

Kevin: In most years, the Patriot League is a very competitive league from top to bottom — although, there usually tends to be a couple of teams are near the basement of Division I basketball. The 2014-15 edition of the Patriot League should be no exception. Just how competitive, you ask? Ken Pomeroy predicts four teams to finish 10-8 (Bucknell, Boston University, American, and Holy Cross) and the next four teams at 9-9 (Army, Colgate, Lafayette, and Lehigh) — eight teams all within one game of each other. That won’t happen, but it sheds light on the kind of parity that exists in this league. There are no future NBA players in the league (so long, Moose and C.J.!) to propel one team to the clear head of the pack, and programs like Army and Colgate have become much more competitive in recent seasons. Buckle up!

You can follow Kevin on Twitter @KLDoyle11 and Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride