CIO… the Patriot LeaguePosted by Brian Goodman on January 25th, 2013
Lehigh Upsets Bucknell: The Lehigh Mountain Hawks traveled to Lewisburg on Wednesday and did more than just upset league favorite Bucknell. With their 65-62 win inside a rabid Sojka Pavilion, they reignited the fervor around what had previously been the most anticipated season in Patriot League history.
The Patriot League doesn’t typically receive much national media coverage. Most years, college basketball fans don’t pay attention until March rolls around and it’s time to see who will represent the conference in the Big Dance — if then. This year was different. The rivalry between Lehigh and Bucknell was debated across the country this preseason. Lehigh was fresh off its stunning upset of Duke in the NCAA Tournament, returning future first-round NBA draft pick C.J. McCollum. Bucknell won the regular season Patriot League title, and boasted a former Patriot League Player of the Year Award winner Mike Muscala, with NBA dreams of his own. But when McCollum broke his foot on January 5 at VCU, most thought that the buzz around the Patriot League was gone. Not so fast.
Lehigh’s most deadly weapon is the three-point shot, and they rank second in the nation at 43.4 percent from beyond the arc. On Wednesday, the Mountain Hawks made an incredible 10 out of 18 threes. Shots started dropping early, as Lehigh hit six threes while racing out to a 27-12 lead. The crowd never relented, willing the Bison back into the ballgame. Bryson Johnson connected on a four-point play, as Bucknell began chipping away. This was the moment it felt like Lehigh finally missed McCollum. Early in the game, the team had an easy time spreading the floor, sharing the ball and knocking down shots. Suddenly they needed a go-to guy to create a shot and get a big bucket. Bucknell came all the way back to within 29-28 at the break.
The Mountain Hawks have played extremely well without McCollum, and head coach Brett Reed said in his postgame press conference that the team has been successful without him for the same reasons they were successful with him. “This year’s team has faced adversity,” Reed said. “It would have been easy to feel down and take a step back after the comeback. But our guys have continued to demonstrate poise, resiliency and togetherness.”
In one of the strangest stats of the early part of the season, no Patriot League game has had any lead changes in the second half all year. Muscala quickly put that stat to bed with a layup to give Bucknell the lead, and the Bison charged ahead by seven with 12:46 to go. The Mountain Hawks shot themselves back into it, hitting four out of five threes in the second half. BJ Bailey, hit all four of his threes en route to a game-high 18, and added a spectacular block as the shot clock expired. Mackey McKnight threw his body around, hitting the deck on a made three and shortly after on a driving lay-up. Gabe Knutson struggled from the field, but had a pretty finish on a play that he started to the right of the basket and finished on the other side.
The Bison didn’t shoot very well, but Muscala had help from his frontcourt mates. Joe Willman had 15 points and nine rebounds, and freshman Dom Hoffman made an unexpected contribution with 10 points off the bench. Muscala was held to just 16 and eight rebounds, but he was dominant on the defensive end with six blocks. Still, it wasn’t enough. Cameron Ayers’ last-second three fell short, and Lehigh held onto the win. Bucknell is now 71-15 all-time against Patriot League foes in Sojka, including three straight losses to Lehigh.
In my last check-in two weeks ago, I analyzed Bucknell’s chances at an at-large bid, knowing full well that if the Bison coasted through the Patriot League Tournament it would be a moot point. While we don’t know yet how much this loss hurts their hopes, the one thing we do know is that it’s not a moot point. These two programs remain the unquestioned top tier of the league, and you should circle February 18 on your calendar for a much-anticipated rematch. If these two teams meet for a third time in March, with the Patriot League championship on the line, fans of the league will get the ending that this season truly deserves.
- Muscala’s Draft Stock Rises: While the Bison team earned its due praise before the season and during its non-conference schedule, Muscala still wasn’t joining McCollum in the NBA draft discussion. That may finally be changing. Now that McCollum has no longer played enough games to qualify for the scoring title, Muscala leads the Patriot League in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. He still leads the nation in ESPN.com’s Player Efficiency Rating by a wide margin, and draft experts are finally starting to take notice. Chad Ford now has Muscala ranked 47th on his big board, and Muscala has earned similar rankings from websites like HOOPSWORLD.com and NetScoutsBasketball.com. A league that has only produced one NBA player (Adonal Foyle) could actually have two players drafted in the same season.
- CBS Shines A Light: While the Patriot League was garnering preseason attention, CBS adjusted its programming schedule accordingly. CBS Sport Network has done a great job covering the league, televising Lehigh’s games against Holy Cross and Bucknell, as well as the Army-Navy game. That game featured a lengthy interview with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, talking about his experiences playing at Army under Bob Knight, coaching at Army, and coaching against David Robinson’s Navy squad in the NCAA Tournament. Tune into their next Patriot League game, because they’ve done a very nice job covering the league.
- Lehigh (14-4, 4-0) – Regardless of who you think will end up winning the league championship, an undefeated conference record and a win on your fiercest rival’s home court is a surefire recipe to take back the top spot in the power rankings. Holden Greiner has elevated his game the most to fill the void left by McCollum’s injury, averaging more than 15 points per game in league play. B.J. Bailey’s explosion on Wednesday came in a season high 33 minutes. He missed the team’s first 10 games, including the losses at Pitt and Baylor. Gabe Knutson also missed the Baylor game, and it’s hard not to wonder if Lehigh might be in the at-large bid conversation if they were fully healthy for the whole year.
- Bucknell (16-4, 3-1) – The Bison will be OK. Wednesday’s game will sting until they have a chance at a rematch, but this is still a team that could sweep through the rest of their Patriot League schedule. Before the loss to Lehigh, Bucknell won by double digits against Army, Colgate and Lafayette. If Lehigh hadn’t made more than half of its threes, I would have led the column with a description of how Bucknell’s frontcourt dominated defensively and forced the Mountain Hawks to rely on shots from long range. Muscala had four straight games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds before Lehigh held him below both marks. He left the second half briefly with a leg injury, but said it didn’t affect him when he later returned.
- Lafayette (9-12, 2-2) — The Leopards have continued a dramatic turnaround in a season that saw them start 1-6 and 3-8. Lafayette beat Holy Cross by 10 points on Wednesday, the Leopards’ seventh straight victory on their home floor. The team has one of the most balanced offenses in the league, and Bryce Scott, Seth Hinrichs and Tony Johnson all scored at least 15 in the win over the Crusaders. Johnson is third in the Patriot League in assists, but has a penchant for turning the ball over. He has cut down on those miscues, limiting himself to no more than one turnover in three of his four league games.
- Holy Cross (10-9, 2-2) – The Crusaders have looked like the Patriot League’s third best team at many points this season, but I couldn’t put them a spot ahead of Lafayette after losing by 10 points in Easton on Wednesday. Holy Cross’s offensive struggles have been infuriating at times, never more so than during a 79-47 blowout loss at Lehigh, in which the team didn’t show up on either end of the floor. They rebounded with wins at Navy and home against American, but then lost to Lafayette. The team ranks 308th in Division-I in scoring, and is last in the conference in field goal percentage at 40.5 percent. The team’s talent was evident when it shot 13-for-21 from beyond the arc against American. Jordan Stevens and Cullen Hamilton both made four out of six, as five players scored in double figures. But performances like that have been hard to come by.
- Army (8-11, 1-3) – Army is one of the most difficult teams in the Patriot League to figure out. As I’ve said at length this season, the Black Knights racked up some wins early in the year against a weak schedule. Now they’ve lost five of six games against Ivy and Patriot League competition. They looked great in a 23-point win against Lafayette, but followed that up with just 50 points in a loss to Navy and an overtime loss at Colgate. Army has consistently ranked fourth in the league in the usually great ratings on kenpom.com, but the team has for the most part been unable to win the games to justify that rating. Ella Ellis is third in the conference in scoring, but scored only five points on 1-for-10 shooting in the overtime loss to Colgate. Kyle Wilson has reached double figures in three straight games, logging significant minutes coming off the bench.
- American (7-12, 2-2) – The Eagles’ offense has finally woken up. Two weeks ago I noted that the team hadn’t scored 65 in regulation in any of their first 15 games. Then they averaged 65.2 per game while splitting their first four league games, topping 70 in wins over Colgate and Navy. In one of their losses, they actually gave Lehigh a great battle in a 63-57 loss in D.C. American raced out to a 23-9 lead, before giving it all back before halftime. The Eagles stayed within three into the final minute, nearly completing the biggest upset of the season. Stephen Lumpkins has averaged 16.5 points in league play, with at least nine rebounds in every game. He pulled down 17 boards in the loss to Lehigh. John Schoof made eight three-points in the win over Navy, one shy of a school record.
- Navy (7-13, 1-3) – Navy’s inspiring start to the season suddenly feels very far away, as the Mids have lost seven out of their last eight games. The win was in a nationally televised game at rival Army, and was a much-needed bright spot for an otherwise struggling team. The win was Navy’s first in Patriot League play during Ed DeChellis’ coaching tenure, halting a 16-game skid that included the entire slate last season. In conference games, Navy ranks last in the Patriot League in points (50.5), field goal percentage (36.9) and scoring margin (11.5). This is still a young team that should improve with age and experience. Freshman Tilman Dunbar continues to lead the conference in assists, and sophomore Worth Smith scored 17 and 16 in back-to-back games against Holy Cross and Army.
- Colgate (7-13, 1-3) – The Raiders dropped their first three Patriot League games, before winning a 93-90 overtime thriller against Army. Colgate is the only team that’s already had to play both Lehigh and Bucknell, but it also lost a very winnable home game against American. Murphy Burnatowski is now second in the conference with 17.4 points per game, after pouring in 35 in the overtime game Wednesday. Several players seem to be taking turns trying to fill the role of second fiddle, but nobody else has consistently played the part. Brandon James has scored in double figures in four of his last five games, so maybe he will continue to step up in conference play.
- Holy Cross vs. Bucknell (January 26, 4 PM ET, CBS Sports Network) — The Bison hope to rebound after losing to Lehigh, and their very first opportunity will be another of their more difficult games on the season. The Crusaders were beaten badly by Lehigh and will relish the chance to host one of the league’s two best teams in a nationally televised game.
- Lehigh vs. Lafayette (January 27, 12:00 PM ET, CBS Sports Network) — CBS stays in the Patriot League the very next day, televising the Leopards and the Mountain Hawks. While Lehigh and Bucknell have been fierce rivals on the basketball court, Lafayette remains the school’s biggest rival because of their football histories. Lafayette is much improved since the beginning of the season and would love a statement win, as Lehigh must be sure to avoid a letdown game following Wednesday’s big win.
- American vs. Lafayette (February 2, 2 PM ET, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic) — The Leopards and Eagles both currently stand at 2-2 in conference play, and are in a mix of teams trying to separate from that pack. The third and fourth seeds in the Patriot League Tournament both come with home games in the quarterfinal round and this game, which could go a long way in determining seeding, will be televised regionally.
Caught On Film
Watch Lehigh head coach Brett Reed and junior guard BJ Bailey talk about Wednesday night’s upset win over Bucknell.