Trying to make sense the Patriot League this season is surely a lost cause by this point, but a more constructive pursuit may be explaining how inexplicable it really is.
Perhaps there was no better model than the game at the Hart Center Thursday night pitting league-leader Colgate against the team at the bottom of the standings, Holy Cross.
Consider that the Raiders went 3-10 in their non-conference schedule, which the public at large would likely deem slightly disappointing, their only wins came over Binghamton, Campbell, and Morrisville St., a (currently 6-12) Division III school. But I say only “slightly” because it’s not like Colgate has a recent history of much success: the program has not had a winning Patriot record since 2002-03 and hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since Adonal Foyle was on campus in 1996 (Foyle was inducted into the World Humanitarian Hall of Fame in 2009, by the way).
This season, the Raiders, who have been either a six or seven seed in the Patriot tourney in each of the last six years, were picked eighth by the coaches. But then they started the Patriot season by winning at Lehigh, then knocked off Bucknell and Holy Cross at home, going from slow to slower in tempo, and suddenly you looked up at they were 5-1 in the league (with the loss, ironically, coming at American in double overtime).
With a veteran team (fifth most experienced in the nation according to KenPom), Matt Langel was able to make the plodding pace work, in league play 10 of its 11 games have been between 57 and 62 possessions, with the only outlier being American, which only went to 65 because of the two overtimes.
There had been some regression to the mean which manifested itself in close losses to Army and Lafayette, but slow and steady (339th in tempo), combined with a 54.6 eFG% (20th in the nation and 59.1% in league play) put Colgate, yes Colgate at the top of the standings.
Which brings us to Holy Cross, who was picked third in the preseason poll (with two first-place votes) and opened the season by beating 23rd-ranked Harvard on a neutral floor. The Crusaders were 5-5 by the time Patriot play opened, but before they could figure out what happened to them, they were 1-5 in the league, with two overtime losses and two others by a combined nine points (the fifth a 74-60 loss at Colgate).
The Crusaders used high pressure, full-court defense but unlike Colgate, couldn’t shoot straight, checking in at 45.6 eFG% (289th) and despite having a high defensive turnover rate (23.2%, 23rd in nation), didn’t really defend well at all (273rd in efficiency, 339th in eFG% at 55.2%). In addition, although they played lots of people and pressured at every opportunity, Holy Cross was mysteriously just 265th in adjusted tempo heading into Thursday.
And, for once, we got what we expected Thursday. Holy Cross huffed and puffed, with Milan Brown using entire line changes at various points to pressure, but Colgate, led by big man Ethan Jacobs hit everything they shot, at one point being 13-18 from the field and 6-7 from three-point range en route to a 36-22 lead.
(Random aside: You feel for teams that try to pressure these days. When the game is called tight – which Thursday’s wasn’t – they can’t get near anyone without fouling. And with game on television, the time outs came fast and furious and serve two bad purposes, giving the opponent a chance to rest and killing momentum. Getting to cover a Division II game Wednesday, I had forgotten how much fatigue could play a factor with no media time outs.)
Of course, just when we finally had the Patriot League pegged, Holy Cross and its pressure stormed from behind to win somewhat easily by Patriot standards, 70-60, moving them to 4-7 and Colgate to 7-4, the entire conference now separated by just three games with seven to play. Spin the roulette wheel, anyone?
“They needed a win, and they’ve been playing well enough to win some of the close ones they lost,” Colgate coach Matt Langel said. “I think they made the shots and the defensive plays they needed to tonight to win. I thought offensively we were in pretty good shape, but defensively we didn’t play as well as we had the past couple games that we won in a close fashion. I thought we let them get to the rim a little too easily at times.”
Indeed, a closer look at the numbers shows that Colgate (10-14, 7-4) had six turnovers in each half, but Holy Cross (remember, they struggle shooting?) went 16-24 from the field after halftime, while Colgate (remember 20th in the nation), which shot at a scorching 76.2 eFG% clip in the first half, was just 40.7% in the second.
Well, back to the drawing board, folks.
In the end, it was senior Justin Burrell, who was the star for the Crusaders (9-12, 4-7) with 15 points (7-8 shooting), eight assists, and no turnovers. He was helped by Malachi Alexander, who hit two massive three-pointers down the stretch to put the game away.
“My freshman year we had a rough spot where we lost some games, but out of nowhere, we ran off five or six games in a row,” Burrell said. “So I just continue to reiterate that to the rest of the team and as you can see there’s no quit in us at all.”
Colgate seems to have a favorable schedule the rest of the way, starting with a huge home game with American Saturday, but how do you know? Langel, who played for an Ivy League champion at Penn, hopes he can guide them through the pressure of contending in February.
“I can’t speak for my student-athletes, but I try to guide them and counsel them,” Langel said. “I was fortunate enough as a student-athlete and as an assistant to be in a position to compete to stay on top of a closely contested league, whether regular season or postseason. But it’s the first go-around for our guys so I’m sure it’s only human nature to look at the standings and say, ‘If we can win this one, we’re in first place alone.’ For me, it’s all about trying to find a way that we can be the best team that we can be on that given day.”
Meanwhile, the realistic goal for Holy Cross, who is still tied for last, is to get up to sixth and avoid playing in the first round of the Patriot tourney. But the way this season has gone, 11-7 could win the whole darn thing.
“I may not have looked at the standings much this week because I knew where we were,” Brown said. “So I didn’t want to see our name where we knew it was. I’d be lying if I didn’t know where everyone was. That was something that we don’t talk about a lot, but I kept saying, ‘We’re not out of the race and our goals have not been taken away from us.’ The best thing about what’s happened so far is we still can be in control of our own destiny.”
For the rest of us, I think it’s time to put away our thinking caps for once, go grab some popcorn, and enjoy the Patriot League show the next month (while maybe secretly rooting for the same thing Ken Pomeroy is).
“There’s no first place or last place until the last couple of games of the season right now,” Langel said. “I think that anybody that watches the league and follows it, maybe we don’t have C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala in the league anymore, or even a dominant team, but you could turn on a Patriot League game on any afternoon and you could watch the whole thing or the last five minutes, and you should be in for a good game.”