Call To The Post As Patriot League Race Set To Begin

Yes, there has been some variety, but unlike many other conferences this season the Patriot League has played fairly close to form in the non-conference slate. Perhaps because of that, you can make a case for several horses in the field of 10 to cross the wire first at the end of the league race, which begins on Wednesday when the conference gate opens.

Preseason favorite (and defending champion) American has had its stumbles and injuries, but not enough to make you think they can’t repeat what they pulled off last season. Army’s dreadful history makes some think twice about plunking their cash down on the Black Knights, but they might have posted the best non-conference slate (including a win at USC) of anyone in the league. Holy Cross had a massive win to open the season against then-ranked Harvard, although the Crusaders haven’t really backed that up of late. And Lafayette can shoot (and score) with anyone in the country, really.

If you want to back a longshot, Bucknell and Lehigh haven’t looked (at least consistently) like their teams that recently won NCAA tournament games, but they’ve shown enough flashes (Lehigh beating Arizona St. and Bucknell nearly knocking off Villanova) that the odds might be worth throwing something on.

Further down, Boston University won the regular-season crown in its inaugural Patriot League campaign, and have looked better of late. Colgate, Loyola (MD), and Navy are all massive underdogs, but if you have a hunch, why not?

Where does everyone stack up as we head into Wednesday? Let’s try to make a little sense of it, with my fearless (and therefore likely wrong) predictions:

 1) ARMY (9-2)

Odds to win: 4-1

KenPom rank: 169

Good win: Dec. 13 at USC, 85-77 (OT)

Bad loss: Dec. 9 vs. Bryant, 73-80

Good KenPom #: 52.1% eFG% (61st)

Bad KenPom #: 35.6% defensive off. rebounding (307th)

Key player: Kyle Wilson – Even with Zach Spiker’s system of playing plenty of people, Wilson ranks 38th nationally in usage (30.8%) and 15th in shot percentage (35.4%). With good reason, of course, he is the leading scorer in the league as well (21.0 ppg). But he suffered a head injury against Maine (leaving in the first half) and didn’t play against Coast Guard Sunday. Without him, Maine took Army to overtime, and it’s hard to see the Black Knights winning the league if he has to miss any length of time. But we’ll see.

Skinny: In an era of slowing things down and grind-it-out defense, Spiker has won by doing the opposite. He’s adjusted by thinning his rotation a little and depending on Wilson, which has worked for the most part, especially playing without Tanner Omlid, who hasn’t played since Nov. 25. Center Kevin Ferguson is shooting 68.6% from the field and is second in the league in blocks, and obviously he can run the floor (good luck getting through PT at West Point if you can’t). Their defense still isn’t great, but it’s better, and that will likely hold the key for them (and Wilson’s health). 

gardner

American senior Pee Wee Garner will have to carry the Eagles even more so this year, already leading the nation in minutes played per game, in order for them to make another NCAA tournament berth.

2) AMERICAN (7-5)

Odds to win: 3-1

KenPom rank: 139

Good win: Dec. 16 at La Salle, 68-66 (OT)

Bad loss: Nov. 29 at Columbia, 43-52

Good KenPom #: 23.8% defensive turnover rate (28st)

Bad KenPom #: 20.9% offensive rebounding (347th) (And, of course the 351st and dead last tempo, but that’s subjective (56.8))

Key player: Pee Wee Gardner – American’s style puts a ton of pressure on the point guard, and he currently leads the nation in minutes played (96.7%), a number that doesn’t seem like it will drop in conference play. Yet his turnover rate is a respectable 21.4% under the circumstances, and he can score when his team needs him to. But he doesn’t have much margin for error.

Skinny: American’s games against the other three major contenders should be fascinating with the contrast of styles (especially against Army and Lafayette). Most of the time last season, the Eagles were able to dictate tempo by holding onto the ball and playing great defense, and they’ll have to do the same this time around. Mike Brennan will likely ride John Schoof, Jesse Reed, and Gardner (and Kevin Panzer when he comes back from injury) as far as they will take him, which might be a repeat if all goes well.

3) LAFAYETTE (8-3)

Odds to win: 5-1

KenPom rank: 141

Good win: Nov. 19 vs. Princeton, 83-66

Bad loss: Nov. 26 at Yale, 60-82

Good KenPom #: 57.9%  eFG% (10th)

Bad KenPom #: 41.8% defensive off. rebounding (347th)

Key player: Joey Ptasinski – He is second nationally in offensive rating and leads in eFG% and true shooting percentage (mostly by hitting 56% of his three-pointers). But even though he is second on the team in minutes, his usage is only eighth on the team (12.3%). When he is hot, he can carry the Leopards, even against teams like American. But if they can’t get him open…

Skinny: I have trouble trusting a team that plays as little defense as Lafayette does (320th in efficiency), and despite its record, Lafayette hasn’t beaten a team above 165th in KenPom. But there’s no doubt the Leopards can shoot the ball, even post players like Dan Trist and Seth Hinrichs create matchup nightmares. But will they battle enough in the paint against physical teams like Holy Cross and American when they aren’t quite as hot as usual?

4) LEHIGH (6-5)

Odds to win: 9-1

KenPom rank: 186

Good win: Dec. 20 at Arizona State, 84-81 (3OT)

Bad loss: Nov. 21 at Rider, 74-78

Good KenPom #: 45.5% defensive eFG% (82nd)

Bad KenPom #: 21.7% turnover rate (276th)

Key player: Tim Kempton – Kempton leads Lehigh in scoring and usage, and has dominated the defensive boards when the Mountain Hawks have been at their best. But you get the feeling we haven’t seen the best out of the sophomore this season, who is still adjusting to his role as the focal point of what Lehigh’s young team is doing. If he adjusts and can start dominating games like it appears like he might be capable of, Lehigh is a legitimate contender.

Skinny: There’s a lot of smart money on the Mountain Hawks of late. Their schedule has been sneaky tough (89th overall), with all their losses coming against teams that think they can make noise in their respective conferences. Add to that a young, clearly improving (they’ve won 6 of 7), well-coached squad, and writing off Lehigh might be at your own peril. They will need young guards Kahron Ross and Austin Price to keep improving and post players Justin Goldsborough and Jesse Chuku to stand up large in conference play, but there’s plenty of potential.

5) HOLY CROSS (5-5)

Odds to win: 12-1

KenPom rank: 212

Good win: Nov. 16 vs. Harvard, 58-57

Bad loss: Dec. 9 vs. Hartford, 61-79

Good KenPom #: 24.6% defensive turnover % (14th)

Bad KenPom #: 43.9% eFG (299th)

Key player: Malcolm Miller – Miller improved his shooting dramatically last season as a junior, and — not surprisingly — it coincided with better play from the Crusaders down the stretch and a berth in the Patriot semifinals. But he has just an 83.0 offensive rating this season, and has hit only eight three-pointers all season, having too many poor shooting games in Holy Cross defeats. At 6’7” and quick, he is almost impossible for most Patriot teams to guard if he’s hitting shots.

Skinny: This is where the “eye test” fails a little. If you watch Holy Cross’ athleticism and depth, the Crusaders seem like they should be Patriot League favorites and they showed it by beating Harvard, and an almost as impressive 17-point victory at Albany. But when you can’t hit shots, it makes things much more difficult. As the numbers show, Holy Cross can turn teams over and athletically make it very difficult to play against them, but if none of your top six scorers in above 42.5% from the field, it’s tough to win consistently.

6) BOSTON UNIVERSITY (4-7)

Odds to win: 25-1

KenPom rank: 248

Good win: Nov. 19 at Norfolk State, 71-63

Bad loss: Nov. 30 vs. UMass-Lowell, 59-69

Good KenPom #: 104.1 offensive efficiency (83rd)

Bad KenPom #: 110.2 defensive efficiency (343rd)

Key player: Cedric Hankerson – Mostly because of the Terriers’ struggles on defense, a heck of a season from Hankerson has gone largely unnoticed so far. Hankerson is second to only Kyle Wilson in scoring (19.0), is tied for the Patriot lead in steals, and is second on the team in assists and rebounds. He only shooting 44.7% on two-pointers this season so there’s still room for improvement, too.

Skinny: It’s a brand new roster (Hankerson was only eighth in minutes last season), but those defensive numbers must be hard to swallow for Joe Jones, whose team was more than 200 spots higher in efficiency on their way to the Patriot League regular-season title last year. It seems like it’s slowly getting better as players like Nathan Dieudonne get used to increased roles and just how tough the paint can be at this level. But BU has the potential to get better as the season goes along if they can survive the next couple of weeks.

7) BUCKNELL (5-8)

Odds to win: 25-1

KenPom rank: 237

Good win: Dec. 1 at Fairfield, 72-66 (OT)

Bad loss: Nov. 22 vs. Mount St. Mary’s, 69-73

Good KenPom #: 28.8% defensive off. rebounding (86th)

Bad KenPom #: 16.1% defensive turnover rate (335th)

Key player: Chris Hass – Hass torched Villanova early in the season for 32 points in what was almost the biggest upset of the season (Villanova is still undefeated). But with a target on him every night out, it hasn’t been as easy elsewhere, as teams try to force him to go to the basket. He’s averaging 16.9 ppg, more than double the next player on the team, so the Bison have to give Hass some much needed help.

Skinny: Their name still holds plenty of weight (78 wins and a 37-5 Patriot League record from 2010-11 to 2012-13 will do that), but this does not have the look of a league contender at the moment, despite Hass being as good a scorer as there is at the mid-major level. Like Lehigh, the team is extremely inexperienced, but — at either end — the learning curve for freshmen like Nana Foulland, J.C. Show, and Stephen Brown seems like it will take at least the rest of this season. But we’ll see.

8) COLGATE (3-10)

Odds to win: 50-1

KenPom rank: 207

Good win: Nov. 22 at Campbell, 54-48

Bad loss: Dec. 14 at New Hampshire, 57-63

Good KenPom #: 50.8% eFG% (90th)

Bad KenPom #: 16.2% defensive turnover rate (333rd)

Key player: Austin Tillotson – The Monmouth transfer proved to be a deadly shooter in his first season in the Patriot League last year, and was second in scoring for the Red Raiders (while leading the team in assists, too). But like Joey Ptasinski for Lafayette, Colgate has either by design or accident, run their offense away from Tillotson this season. He is third in the Patriot League in assist rate (29.6%), which is good, but senior center Ethan Jacobs has taken enough shots to make his way up the usage and percentage of shots taken charts this season. We’ll see if they can afford to keep doing that in conference play.

Skinny: Unlike the other two teams considered to be at the bottom here (Navy and Loyola), Colgate’s offense has actually been very good at times this season, and is shooting even better. At the other end, though, they haven’t offered enough (any?) resistance to opponents, although their schedule (like Lafayette) has been sneaky tough (48th nationally actually) with Syracuse and Arizona State, but also middle teams like Albany and Columbia, both of whom the Red Raiders played tough. It’s always a tough road game in Hamilton, especially if Tillotson gets rolling.

9) NAVY (4-8)

Odds to win: 200-1

KenPom rank: 321

Good win: Dec. 22 vs. Towson, 61-56

Bad loss: Dec. 9 at The Citadel, 60-67

Good KenPom #: 32.0% defensive off. rebounding (87th)

Bad KenPom #: 55.4% defensive eFG (329th)

Key player: Worth Smith – Navy suffered a rash of injuries to begin the season, but Smith was the biggest, a physical presence who can fill most of the stat sheet. He was injured in the season opener against Michigan State and returned last week against Towson, not coincidentally their best win of the season thus far. Without him, the Midshipmen had trouble doing much of anything offensively. Smith is not a classic great scorer and not a huge threat from deep, but coupled with senior Brandon Venturini, they could will Navy to some victories in conference play.

Skinny: Smith’s return won’t solve all Navy’s offensive woes, as Ed DeChellis’ roster still has a lot of players that are offensively challenged or young or both. But a trio of Smith, Venturini, and Tilman Dunbar will make Navy difficult to play, especially in Annapolis. This defensive eFG% number will be the one that alarms DeChellis the most, but you can make the case that they’ve been unlucky. Their opponents’ 40.4% three-point percentage is the 18th highest in the nation, and that should come down. Their early schedule was also especially brutal, with each of their first five losses being in the top 150 in KenPom (including sneaky good teams like Northeastern and Saint Francis University). They probably won’t be able to manage a top-half finish, but they’ll surprise someone in the next couple of months.

10) LOYOLA (MD) (4-7)

Odds to win: 100-1

KenPom rank: 310

Good win: Dec. 2 at Columbia, 64-62

Bad loss: Dec. 6 vs. Mount St. Mary’s, 65-74

Good KenPom #: 33.7% offensive rebounding % (99th)

Bad KenPom #: 40.1% eFG% (345th)

Key player: Tyler Hubbard – The Greyhounds took eight three-pointers in their win over Fairfield on Sunday and Hubbard took all eight. It’s a lot of pressure for a kid who averaged just 19 mpg last season as a sophomore, but he’s really the only semi-dependable outside threat Loyola has right now. Eric Laster and freshman Andre Walker — who is improving as a point guard — may be able to help a little, but Hubbard is the main threat right now.

Skinny: Even G.G. Smith called his team “offensively challenged” so far this season. Smith was put in a tough spot, trying to replace Jimmy Patsos while simultaneously making the transition from the MAAC into the Patriot League. where recruiting can be tougher due to academic limitations. He’s hoping a freshman class of Walker, Chancellor Bernard, and Cam Gregory can start the transition, but if the Greyhounds are going to win, it’s going to be with their defense and execution. Like Navy, though, give them some life and they may hang a loss on you before the night’s over.