Checking In On… the Patriot LeaguePosted by Brian Goodman on November 30th, 2012
- The Hunt for an Automatic Bid: One of the most intriguing storylines at the outset of the season was whether an improved Patriot League could send two teams to the Big Dance in March. With both Lehigh and Bucknell receiving attention in various national mid-major rankings, it was possible that one or both could play itself into the at-large bid conversation. Lehigh squandered two of its best chances to impress the selection committee, dropping games at Baylor and Pitt. The Pitt loss was particularly damning because a win would have generated more chances against quality competition in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals and/or finals. The Mountain Hawks will have to win the Patriot League Tournament to get another shot to play with the big boys this March. Bucknell, on the other hand, had a more difficult non-conference schedule to begin with and has held up its end of the bargain with wins over Purdue, George Mason and New Mexico State. The Bison would likely need to win at Missouri on January 5 and submit a dominant conference season, but the door is still open. If the Bison win the Patriot League tournament, the point will be moot, but if they suffer an upset, the league could have two in the Field of 68.
- Wins From Top to Bottom: While Lehigh and Bucknell captured the preseason headlines, it bears repeating that six other Patriot League teams entered the season with high aspirations of their own. The Patriot League is an improved conference this year, with teams from top to bottom earning non-conference wins. Through Wednesday, the league had a cumulative record of 29-26. Many of those losses came in mismatches against schools from the power conferences, as was to be expected. But the league has been far from a doormat. The eight Patriot League schools have mopped up some of the other conferences on the East Coast, going a combined 23-5 against teams from the America East, CAA, Ivy League, MAAC, MEAC, and NEC. So while Bucknell’s wins against the Big Ten and WAC help elevate the standing of the whole conference, other schools are doing their part as well.
- McCollum Sets Career Mark, Leads Nation in Scoring: Move over, Rob Feaster. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum broke Feaster’s mark of 2,224 career points, which had stood since he graduated from Holy Cross in 1995. The Preseason AP All-American broke the mark during a 26-point effort against Sacred Heart on Sunday. McCollum has more than 20 games to pad his record. After he poured in 25 in the second half at Quinnipiac on Wednesday night, McCollum’s 26.3 points per game lead the nation. Eighteen NBA scouts showed up for Lehigh’s opening game against Baylor. And in case you think all 18 were there just to get a first look at Isaiah Austin, 20 more showed up for Lehigh’s second game against Robert Morris. Most preseason projections had McCollum as a first round pick in this summer’s draft, and his play so far has only helped his stock. Most notably, McCollum has improved his three-point shooting. He has hit 21-of-38 shots from beyond the arc, good for 55.3 percent.
- Bucknell (6-1) – The Bison would like to remind you that they, not Lehigh, were the regular season conference champions last year. A statement win in the season opener at Purdue set the tone that Bucknell’s difficult non-conference schedule was not just for show. The Bison received five votes in the AP poll before losing to Penn State. Mike Muscala’s 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks both lead the conference. He was strangely uninvolved in the loss to Penn State, with just four shots in 37 minutes. That game should be a wake-up call to get him the ball more often.
- Lehigh (5-2) – Yes, the Mountain Hawks disappointed in their games against Baylor and Pitt. But Lehigh has won all five games it was supposed to, and has clearly proven that they and Bucknell remain a cut above the rest of the group. Gabe Knutson missed the Baylor game with a knee injury but has looked healthy since returning. While McCollum gets most of the attention, Knutson’s ability to match up with Muscala may well decide this year’s Patriot League Championship. Senior guard B.J. Bailey has missed the first seven games due to the effects of a concussion, and it’s unknown when he’ll return.
- American (2-4) – Stephen Lumpkins entered the season as one of the conference’s biggest wild cards, returning to the Eagles after taking a year off to pursue a career in professional baseball. He was an integral part of the 2010-2011 squad that went 11-3 in conference play. He’s essentially picked up where he left off, boosting his scoring to 16.2 points per game and hauling in 7.2 rebounds on average. The Eagles split four close games, bookended by disappointing losses against Minnesota and St. Joe’s. They should still finish in the top half of the Patriot League.
- Holy Cross (4-3)– The Crusaders rank 329th in the country in points per game, and 345th in field goal percentage. There are only 347 teams. It’s a shame too, because the defense has played very well. Holy Cross held St. John’s to 65 points and Providence to 61, but managed to lose both games by double digits. Still, a team that can hold Big East schools in the 60s, and squeak out a one point win at the CAA’s Old Dominion is a team that can win in the Patriot League. Seven games is still a relatively small sample size, and it’s hard to believe they’ll keep missing shots at this rate. Dave Dudzinski, a 6’9” forward is the team’s leading scorer (12.3 PPG), but he struggled to make an impact in all three of those high-profile games.
- Army (3-2) – Ella Ellis is the second-leading scorer in the conference, boosted in large part by his 37-point outburst in a double-overtime loss to Yale. Sure, it’s easier to score 37 when the game goes an extra 10 minutes, but there’s nothing easy about scoring eight points in consecutive overtime periods. Ellis is a senior whose terrific career has been overshadowed by McCollum and Muscala. Kyle Wilson’s impact has been a pleasant surprise for the Black Knights. The freshman from Mission Viejo,California, has averaged 13 points in just 22 minutes per game off the bench, and captured consecutive Patriot League Rookie of the Week honors. At some point he may force head coach Zach Spiker to put him in the starting lineup.
- Lafayette (2-6)—After playing sacrificial Leopard to Kentucky, and losing a few other tough road games, nobody should be more excited than Lafayette to get the non-conference schedule over with and bring in some beatable teams. A much-needed upset win over Delaware Wednesday night was a nice sign before a stretch of more winnable games the next couple weeks. The Leopards have had trouble finding consistent points off the bench, which may be why they have a habit of wearing down in the second half. Through eight games, they’ve been outscored by 3.6 points in the first half and 9.3 in the second half and overtime. Dan Trist missed three games the Leopards were likely to lose anyway, but he is back now and leading the team in scoring (15.2 PPG).
- Colgate (3-4) – The Raiders are shooting an impossibly good 43.8 percent from beyond the three point line this season, good for seventh in the country. That’s only a hair above Lehigh, albeit on more than two extra attempts per game. While Murphy Burnatowski and Pat Moore have done the majority of the shooting, four different players are shooting above 40 percent from three-point range and attempting more than two per game. That makes life tough on opposing defenses, that can’t leave anybody open. Colgate has had a statistically difficult schedule, thanks to games against Illinois,Marquette and Syracuse, but hasn’t had a truly impressive win yet. Of the Raiders’ three wins, only Marist has beaten another Division I opponent this year.
- Navy (4-4)– On the bright side for the Midshipmen, they’ve allowed the fewest points per game of any team in the Patriot League. Navy plays at one of the slowest tempos in the nation, just as they did last season. Ed DeChellis is now in his second year running this system, but he is still looking for his first conference win. A few early wins, even against a week schedule, should be seen as progress for a team that went 3-26 last season.
Here’s a quick look at some of the most intriguing games over the next couple weeks:
- Columbiavs. Bucknell (December 1,7 p.m. ET.) – Bucknell has entered a stretch with just two games in 17 days. A road game against a Columbia team that just beat Villanova by 18 will be one of the team’s toughest games before Christmas.
- Lehigh vs. Fordham (December 4,7 p.m. ET) – Lehigh also enters a slow part of their schedule. Fordham led Lehigh by one point at halftime last year, before the Mountain Hawks pulled away with a dominating second half.
- Quinnipiac vs. Colgate (December 5,7 p.m. ET) – Quinnipiac should offer a good measuring stick for the Raiders. In addition to taking UConn to double overtime, the Bobcats hung tough in losses to American and Lehigh. Colgate’s game against a team with multiple common opponents will say a lot about the strength of the Patriot League, and Colgate’s standing within it.
Caught On Film – CJ McCollum cracks SportsCenter Top 10:
C.J. McCollum threw down a thunderous dunk during the November 19 game against Fairfield, and it replayed all night in the number two spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10.