Over the course of the last two nights, four more teams made their Big Dance dreams a reality. As each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets next weekend.
It’s An NEC Tournament Three-Peat For The Blackbirds. Welcome Back To The Big Dance!
NEC Champion (20-13, 15-6)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #178/#184/#162
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +0.2
Likely NCAA Seed: #16
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
While it might be a bit of hyperbole to announce the Long Island Blackbirds as a NEC dynasty, three conference tournament titles in a row will get that conversation started. LIU may have found the transition under new coach Jack Perri to be slightly rougher than expected – they were just 5-10 before winning 10 of their final 13 games – but a familiar destination has appeared at the end of the road – the NCAA Tournament. And while the Blackbirds haven’t completely embarrassed themselves in the past two NCAA Tournaments (losing by 15 and 22 points, respectively), can this year’s team make the next step and put a real scare into one of the field’s top teams?
Normally, a team playing at the 29th quickest tempo in the nation would be lauded for their freneticism, and yes, LIU does play fast. But after back-to-back years of holding a top three spot in the metric, things have slowed down a bit in Brooklyn. The offensive personnel on this team is impressive. Junior point guard Jason Brickman is the nation’s leader in assists at 8.5 per contest, while his backcourt mate CJ Garner has been on a scoring tear, going for 30+ in three of the Blackbirds last four. Neither is the team’s most talented player, however; senior Jamal Olasewere plays power forward for LIU at 6’7”, but would seamlessly fit in on most any power conference team at the two or the three. A phenomenal athlete who can both put the ball on the deck and score with his back to the basket, Olasewere is a match-up problem waiting to happen.
It’s fun to watch LIU play offense. Too often though, it’s just as fun to watch their opponents play offense. LIU ranks 318th nationally in defensive efficiency, and gave up at least 89 points to each of their three power conference foes this season — Kentucky, Maryland, and Seton Hall (yes, the same Seton Hall that managed a total of 81 regulation points during its two-game Big East Tournament run.) None of those three games were particularly close. The offensive firepower gives the Blackbirds more bite than your typical #16 seed, but their profound inability to get stops is the reason they will likely be in that slot. LIU might have a little bit of fun at the Big Dance – maybe 20 minutes or so – but nothing they have done so far suggests they are capable of hanging with the nation’s elite for the full 40.
Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.
Bucknell Wins Lehigh Rematch: The Bison and Mountain Hawks have spent the majority of this season tied atop the league standings, and they stayed that way when both teams lost last Saturday. While their losses may have hurt both teams’ overall resumes, they did nothing to diminish the importance of the game between two 8-2 opponents. The rematch was critically important to both teams, but more so to Bucknell because Lehigh had already won the first match-up in Lewisburg. Had Lehigh won, they would have had a one-game lead, plus the season sweep — essentially a two-game lead, with three to play. Lehigh’s uncharacteristically poor shooting was one of the night’s main storylines, as the Mountain Hawks went just 1-of-15 from three-point range and 6-of-15 from the free throw line. After Lehigh shot 10-of-18 from beyond the arc in their first meeting, the Bison wanted to contest those shots better and force Lehigh to come inside for better looks. Still, 1-of-15 is obviously a brutal night, and there is no excuse for a team previously shooting better than 75 percent from the line to go 6-of-15. Bucknell’s star Mike Muscala scored just 12 points, with his minutes limited due to first half foul trouble, but his nine rebounds and four blocks made a big impact during his 26 minutes on the floor. Bryson Johnson made three three-pointers and scored 19 points, and Cameron Ayers made a wild shot that put the game away after Lehigh had cut an 11-point deficit down to three points in the final minute. With a one-game cushion and a softer schedule, the Bison now look very likely to take the top seed and lock up home court advantage throughout the Patriot League Tournament.
Tony Does It Twice: Tony Johnson, who goes by the twitter handle @Tonytone_3, gave Patriot League fans two reasons to say his name this week. Lafayette’s dynamic point guard hit game winning shots in consecutive games. First he hit a bucket with 4.5 seconds left to put Lafayette ahead of Bucknell 63-62 on Saturday. Then on Wednesday, he hit a tie-breaking three-pointer with even less time remaining against Holy Cross. The Leopards started the season 5-10, and dropped to 8-12 after losing two of their first three Patriot League games. They have since reeled off six wins in eight games, including upsets of both Bucknell and Lehigh. Johnson’s play (12.2 points and 5.0 assists per game in league play) is a major reason the Leopards are legitimate contenders to win what was previously considered a two-team league.
The Leopards Have Leaned On Tony Johnson To Keep Them In The Thick Of The Patriot League Race. (April Bartholomew/Morning Call)
The Patriot League’s Most Exciting Day: While arguably the most anticipated season in Patriot League history has offered compelling storylines, it took a little while for the games on the court to live up to the hype surrounding the league. With a few notable exceptions, the first half of league play saw relatively few second half lead changes, let alone games coming down to the final possession. Fortunately, with the Patriot League Tournament on the horizon, the games have gotten more exciting. Saturday, February 16 was easily the most fun day of the Patriot League season, with three games decided by a total of six points all playing out at once. Johnson’s last second shot lifted Lafayette past Bucknell. Lehigh came all the way back from 22 points down to Colgate, before the Raiders fended them off. And Army held off a last-second shot to grab a one-point win over Navy. Fans of the league can hold plenty of hope that when matchups are renewed for their third installment during the conference tournament, the games will only continue to get more exciting.
Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.
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.
Mike Muscala’s Coming Out Party Is Over. Now It’s All About Tracking His Draft Stock.
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.
Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.
Lehigh Loses McCollum: Lehigh’s Pre-Season All-America guard, CJ McCollum, suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot during Saturday’s nationally televised game at VCU. More than 30 NBA scouts came to watch him in person, but he went down midway through the first half. This injury is a real shame, not just for Lehigh but for the whole league. The Patriot League has received unprecedented levels of press so far this season because of McCollum and the anticipated exciting battle between Lehigh and Bucknell for the league title. Now, much of the buzz may dissipate before conference play even starts. McCollum has already undergone surgery, and early diagnoses had him out 8-10 weeks. The Patriot League Tournament falls right in that stretch, so it’s unknown if he’ll make it back out on the court again this season. Even if he does rush back, it may take him longer to return to 100 percent. The Patriot League’s all-time scoring leader will now fall short of Daren Queenan’s school record, which was set before Lehigh joined the conference. While he is fiercely dedicated to his team’s success this year, nobody would expect him to do anything foolish with his body while he still projects to be a first round pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.
Eight-to-Ten Weeks Without C.J. McCollum Doesn’t Sit Well With Lehigh Fans. (Joe Mahoney/AP)
Bucknell Keeps Building a Resume: The Bison came heartbreakingly close to beating Missouri in their most difficult non-conference game of the season, dropping a 66-64 contest in Columbia. Still, Bucknell is establishing itself as one of the top mid-major teams in the country. The Bison are ranked fourth in the latest College Insider Mid-Major Top 25. They come in at #36 at kenpom.com and #38 in the RPI. Bucknell has escaped the non-conference portion of its season with a league record 13 wins, and it’s now safe to say that an at-large bid is officially in play. McCollum’s injury makes them the favorite to win the Patriot League Tournament, whether he returns for the tournament or not, but a strong regular season and a tournament upset could land Bucknell in the Big Dance anyway.
Wrapping Up the Non-Conference Season: The performance of the league slipped a bit over the last two weeks, dropping the conference’s cumulative record to 62-62 with just one non-conference game remaining (Colgate plays the New Jersey Institute of Technology in February). Some of those wins came against competition below the Division I level, but the eight schools have combined to go 56-41 against D-I teams outside of the six power conferences. The teams are an impressive 48-29 against the A-10, America East, CAA, Ivy, MAAC, NEC and MEAC. Those marks are good enough to hold steady at #16 out of 33 in the conference ratings on Ken Pomeroy’s website. Last year the Patriot League finished at #22.
Bucknell (13-3) – Seemingly every other game, Mike Muscala puts forth an effort described as his best game of the season. If he hadn’t had his coming out party yet, it was definitely against Missouri last Saturday. Muscala put up 25 points and 14 rebounds against a nationally ranked team loaded with talent. The Bison led at halftime and outrebounded the Tigers, but fell just short. Muscala stepped on the base line with 4.1 seconds left in a one-point game, with Bucknell in position to take the lead. Though Muscala currently leads ESPN.com’s Player Efficiency Ratings, this is not a one-man team. Cameron Ayers, son of former Ohio State and NBA coach Randy Ayers, has scored in double figures in six straight games and Bryson Johnson is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. Read the rest of this entry »
Kevin Doyle is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find him on Twitter at @KLDoyle11
C.J. And Moose: You’ve read about them all summer, and will continue to do so even more during the season. C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala have developed into household names in the college basketball community on a national scale, not just in the charming land of mid-major basketball. McCollum has garnered more press, understandably, due to Lehigh’s victory against Duke in the NCAA Tournament. His decision to test the waters of the NBA Draft — he smartly did not hire an agent — gave him the opportunity to return to Lehigh. Muscala has earned his fair share of press as well, being named as a Top 100 player by CBS Sports and a Mid-Major All American by NBC Sports’ College Basketball Talk.
A Two-Bid league? An ambitious thought to be sure, but a possibility, albeit a small one. Prior to delving into what has to break right for either Bucknell or Lehigh to garner an at-large berth, let’s take a look at Bucknell’s 2005-06 resume: RPI of 42, 2-3 versus the RPI top 50 with wins over Syracuse and St. Joseph’s, 23rd-ranked non-conference schedule, and the only loss that could be considered a “bad loss” was to Santa Clara, which had an RPI of 184. The Bison went on to defeat Holy Cross in the Patriot League championship, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but what if Bucknell had lost? With their resume, they would have almost assuredly earned an at-large bid. Fast forward seven years, and one has to wonder if a similar scenario may play out. Could Lehigh or Bucknell earn an at-large bid? It’s more likely that Bucknell would, considering the Bison’s non-conference schedule is better than Lehigh’s and there are more opportunities to pick up resume-building wins, but one thing is certain: It is possible for a Patriot League team to earn an at-large bid. The notion that it all comes down to “three games in March,” while the case most years, may not be the case in 2012-13.
C.J. McCollum (left) and Mike Muscala are two of the many reasons why the Patriot League is one to watch this season.
Reed, Paulsen Moving Up? Doctor Brett Reed (side note: Reed received his PhD from Wayne State University in Instructional Technology) and Dave Paulsen have proven to be exceptional recruiters and developers of talent, and the results on the court speak for themselves. Complete conjecture, but it seems they both are on the inside track to move up in the coaching world, especially with their respective star players graduating in the spring of 2013. Reed, a native of Waterford, Michigan, was rumored to have been a candidate for the Central Michigan job (Keno Davis is now the head man for the Chippewas) along with other MAC jobs, while Paulsen was speculated to be a candidate for the Dayton job in 2011. Paulsen, however, was awarded with a five-year extension to his contract last year, so it looks like he will remain in Lewisburg for the foreseeable future. Paulsen has won everywhere he has coached: St. Lawrence, Le Moyne, Williams, and now Bucknell. Reed is one of the brighter young basketball minds in the coaching ranks, and in my mind the smoothest and most eloquent speaker in the game.
Pivotal Season for Brown, Holy Cross: Although Holy Cross head coach Milan Brown has a less than stellar mark of 23-35 record in his first two years at the helm, he nearly doubled his win total from year one to two (8-21 in 2010-11, 15-14 in 2011-12). As such, it is imperative that he builds upon the success the Crusaders had during conference play last year — Holy Cross won its final six games of the regular season — and continue this upward trend. Brown has made it known he wishes to push the ball up the floor on offense whenever the opportunity presents itself, and to instill a high-pressure man-to-man defense. With two recruiting classes now under his belt, Holy Cross should be more apt in implementing Brown’s offensive and defensive systems. Despite those two recruiting classes on campus, it will be slightly more difficult to build on the success as R.J. Evans elected to use his final year of eligibility at Connecticut. (Hard to blame Evans for his decision as he hails from the Nutmeg State and watched the Huskies win two national titles growing up.) Read the rest of this entry »
Kevin Doyle is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. The PL is among the first of this season’s conference tournaments to tip, with action set to start tonight.You can find him on Twitter@KLDoyle11.
The Favorite: Despite losing back-to-back games against Lehigh and Holy Cross down the stretch, and a less than stellar performance against bottom-dweller Navy, Bucknell remains the favorite to win the Patriot League. The Patriot League Tournament—like many of the smaller conference tournaments around the country—has its championship game located at the highest remaining seed. Playing in the friendly confines of Sojka Pavilion has treated the Bison quite well over the past two seasons as they are a combined 26-3 there. The last road team to win the PLT was, ironically enough, Bucknell back in the 2004-05 season in Worcester against Holy Cross. Home court does have its perks, and Bucknell can rest easy knowing that if they take care of business all three tournament games will be played in Lewisburg. Semantics and seeding aside though, it also doesn’t hurt that Bucknell has far and away the league’s best big man in Mike Muscala. Steady guard Cameron Ayers, sharpshooter Bryson Johnson, and a lunch pail kind of player in Joe Willman make the Bison a formidable group. More on the Muscala—or, as the Bison faithful like to call him, “Moose”—later.
Dark Horse: Back in early February, the Holy Cross Crusaders looked as if they had mailed it in. Poor efforts on the defensive end, not playing as a cohesive unit, and questionable game preparation all contributed, among other things, to a 3-5 start in league play. After being on the wrong end of a 75-51 drubbing at Lehigh, something clearly happened inside the Holy Cross locker room and during practice sessions; the Crusaders’ six game winning streak, their longest since the beginning of the 2007-08 season, did not happen by chance. While the offense is still inconsistent and stalls during inopportune times, the defense has spearheaded the late charge. During the first eight games of league play, Holy Cross gave up an average of 69 points per game. Since then, they are giving up a remarkable 54.7 points. All that being said, the Crusaders have greatly struggled on the road (4-11) and the road to the Patriot League Championship in all likelihood runs through either Bucknell or Lehigh. A tall task for the Crusaders no doubt, but they are peaking at the right time.
Who’s Hot: Hide the women and children, C.J. McCollum is playing his best basketball of the season and the vaunted Lehigh offense is clicking on all cylinders as the Mountain Hawks enter the tournament. Over the course of their last 10 games—nine of them wins—McCollum is averaging 23.4 points. His lowest output during this run was 15 points against Bucknell, but his final three points of this contest came just before the buzzer as he connected on a triple from the top of the key to propel Lehigh to a comeback victory.
Some may call McCollum cocky and arrogant—especially in the preceding clip as he stares down the Bucknell student section—but his play certainly backs it up.
Player to Watch: All eyes will be on C.J. McCollum, but it behooves you to overlook the Patriot League’s best forward in several year: Mike Muscala. The junior from Minnesota is one of the most efficient players on the offensive end you will see this year as he shoots better than 50% from the field and close to 90% from the charity stripe—not too shabby for a 6’11 guy. On the defensive end, Muscala is on the verge of cracking the Top 10 in the Patriot League for blocks all time. What goes unnoticed is how intelligent he is on the floor with his exceptional positioning and court awareness. Muscala has not fouled out of a game this season, and has only picked up four fouls once. Staying out of foul trouble has enabled him to earn 30 minutes a night and really increased his production. While much of the talk from the media and those outside of Patriot League circles will be of McCollum, don’t forget the “Moose” at Bucknell.
Game to Watch: Lafayette @ Holy Cross—After having their season ended by Lafayette the past two years, Holy Cross will look to return the favor this time around. In the regular season, the teams split the season series with each team winning on the opponent’s home floor. The last time the teams met in Worcester, Holy Cross jumped out to a 24-14 halftime lead only to be outscored by 21 points in the second half. Lafayette will be at a major disadvantage in the third meeting though as Second-Team All-League performer Tony Johnson is out for the rest of the year with an ankle injury.
How’d They Fare: Bucknell was trounced by eventual National Champions Connecticut 81-52. It may be hard to believe, but this score doesn’t reflect how lopsided the game actually was. Bucknell looked to push the tempo and played exclusively man-to-man throughout the game, but simply did not have the horses that Connecticut had. Sometimes, the brains can outplay the talent, but very rarely are they able to outrun them.
A Look Back
How’d I Do? – Prior to the season beginning, here is how I saw things shaking out (preseason on the left, final standings on the right):
Bucknell (11-3) 1. Bucknell (12-2)
Lehigh (9-5) 2. Lehigh (11-3)
Holy Cross (7-7) 3. American (10-4)
Colgate (7-7) 4. Holy Cross (9-5)
American (6-8) 5. Lafayette (7-7)
Navy (6-8) 6. Army (5-9)
Lafayette (6-8) 7. Colgate (2-12)
Army (4-10) 8. Navy (0-14)
I was right on the mark in predicting that Bucknell and Lehigh would finish one/two, and that Holy Cross would finish in the top four, but believed in Colgate and Navy more than I should have and undersold American. (Just as an aside, Jeff Jones has never finished in the bottom four of the Patriot League and American has advanced to the semifinals in every year they have been in the league. Clearly, I have learned to no longer bet against coach Jones.)
As for Colgate, the Raiders performed up to many expectations in the non-conference, but struggled in the Patriot League against all teams not named Navy. Given that the Raiders are a senior laden team who finished last season going 6-8 down the stretch, I believed Matt Langel would have that moderate success carry over—it did not. Although, it should be known that their star forward Yaw Gyawu has been hindered by injuries for much of the year—Gyawu was pegged as a member of my All-League Team in the preseason.
All-League Team(statistics from conference games only)
G Seth Hinrichs, Lafayette (7.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 50.0 3PT%)
G Maxwell Lenox, Army (7.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.4 SPG)
F Worth Smith, Navy (6.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
F Dan Trist, Lafayette (6.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
Player of the Year: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh—This has been a two player race for much of the season, even though American fans would like to think that Charles Hinkle was in the discussion, but, in the end, the Player of the Year debate was going to come between C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala. Arguments can easily be made for both players. Each is the focal point of their team and have experienced a good deal of success as individual players. However, it was McCollum’s dominance and ability to take over a game makes him the Player of the Year. Not a shot against Muscala at all, but it is easier for a 6’3 guard to take over a basketball game than a 6’11 forward. McCollum ranks sixth nationally in points per game at 21.7, but is more than just a scorer—the rest of his stat line reflects that. By many accounts, he has become more of a complete player, but certainly understands when he needs to carry Lehigh.
Coach of the Year: Jeff Jones, American—Losing virtually his entire frontcourt with Vlad Moldoveanu graduating and Stephen Lumpkins pursuing a career in baseball, Jeff Jones’ outlook for the year was bleak. Relying on transfers who had only been with the program for a year and two forwards who seldom saw the floor a year before, Jones had his work cut out for him. Fortunately for him, Charles Hinkle—one of the transfers from Vanderbilt—emerged early in the season as a reliable scorer, and sophomore Tony Wroblicky proved to be a serviceable big man. Even still, Jones turned a team that seemed destined for the middle-of-the-pack into a title contender.
Rookie of the Year: Seth Hinrichs, Lafayette—The 6’7 guard from Minnesota is a pure shooter in every sense of the word, and fits perfectly into Fran O’Hanlon’s jump shot friendly offense. Although Hinrichs has the height that would suggest he is a forward in the Patriot League, he lacks the bulk and size to work in the paint, and with a shot like his it would be foolish to put him down there. Hinrichs shot an impressive 50% from three, 54.8% from the field, and averaged 7.4 points all in Patriot League play. With Ryan Willen and Jim Mower graduating, Hinrichs will become a primary option next year for Lafayette.
Defensive Player of the Year: Bryan Cohen, Bucknell—Rather than bore you with analysis on Cohen’s ability to shut down an opponent’s top scoring threat, I’ll let the following numbers do the talking:
Lehigh, American, and Holy Cross were three of the top four teams in the Patriot League. Against these teams, Cohen has done a remarkable job limiting the scoring production of C.J. McCollum, Charles Hinkle, and Devin Brown.
Average points against all PL teams other than Bucknell
Average points scored against Bucknell
One can attribute the disparity in scoring to a poor shooting night, but such a pattern suggests that Cohen is a significant part of the lower scoring output. Dave Paulsen has a real luxury in matching him up with the opposition’s top scorer and knowing life will be made very difficult for him. Cohen was recently tabbed as the Patriot League’s Defensive Player of the Year; this is the third time he has received the honor. I’d like to see any other player garner such an award three times in their career—quite the feat.
6th Man of the Year: Mike Cavataio, Holy Cross—It has been quite the journey for Holy Cross senior swingman Mike Cavataio, just take a gander at his lengthy college basketball timeline:
2007-08: Played under Norm Roberts at St. John’s where he saw six minutes of action per game and made one start during Big East play against Marquette
2008-09: Transferred to Holy Cross to play under Ralph Willard, but had to sit out the entire season
2009-10: In his first season of eligibility, he played under first year coach Sean Kearney and averaged 11.3 points in 31 games
2010-11: After Sean Kearney was fired after one year, he played under Milan Brown and averaged 8.9 points in 29 games
2011-12: He was injured in the first game of the season against the College of Charleston and missed every game in the non-conference. He returned January 7th against Lehigh
Suffice it to say, this is not how Mike Cavataio drew up his college basketball career. Coming out of St. Francis Prep in New York, Cavataio had aspirations of lighting up Madison Square Garden playing for St. John’s. He soon realized that he could earn more minutes and play a significant role at a smaller school, and Holy Cross seemed like the perfect fit—a successful mid-major program under the tutelage of Ralph Willard. After sitting out a year, experiencing five different coaches between high school and college ball, and suffering through an injury—something he is accustomed to after breaking the same ankle twice during his sophomore year in high school—Cavataio has developed into the prototypical sixth man. He provides an instant spark off the bench with his defense—the Crusaders best on-ball defender—and mid-range and slashing ability on offense. Although he averages a mere 5.4 points, many of his contributions do not show up in the box score, something that his teammates and keen observes would tell you.
Most Improved Player: Charles Hinkle, American—Whatever Charles Hinkle did during the summer months and offseason, it worked. After averaging 11.6 points last year, many assumed that Troy Brewer would have to carry the load this season. And Brewer has been no slouch averaging 12 points a night, but the emergence of Hinkle as the go-to guy has alleviated the pressure Brewer and others may have felt. In his first three seasons, Hinkle rarely shot from behind the arc, and when he did he shot just 25%. This year, he is almost 20 percentage points better at 43.4%. His scoring average by year: 2.0, 1.4, 4.4, 18.8. A 14.4 point increase from his junior to senior season—unheard of. Jones told the Washington Post earlier this month: “We knew he was a good player, we knew he could help us. How much and in what role, that was up in the air. He was playing a role of working hard, good defense, as opposed to what he does best: shooting the ball in the basket.” I’d say that Hinkle has found is role just fine for Jeff Jones.
Game of the Year: Lehigh 56 Bucknell 53 (February 16th at Sojka Pavilion)—It was far from the prettiest game: more turnovers than assists, a combined 9-39 shooting from behind the arc, both teams shooting below 37%, and neither team cracking the 60 point mark, but the Lehigh-Bucknell tilt in Lewisburg was a dandy. In what may be a prelude to the championship game, a C.J. McCollum three pointer—this shot alone may have earned him the Patriot League Player of the Year award—won the game for Lehigh and ended Bucknell’s Patriot League winning streak at an impressive 20 games.
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Patriot League correspondent, Kevin Doyle.
Colgate Cleans House —After posting just three winning seasons in his 12 seasons as the head man for the Raiders, Emmett Davis and his staff were released of their duties following the 2010-11 campaign. Davis never reached the postseason while at Colgate and his most successful season came in 2007-08, when he led the Raiders to the conference tournament final against American. As Davis moves on to an assistant job with the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Matt Langel will make the journey to Hamilton to lead Colgate. A 2000 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, this will be Langel’s first job as a head coach, following a stint as one of Fran Dunphy’s lead assistants at Temple. By the looks of it, the Colgate coaching staff may very well be the youngest in the country as Langel—at just 33 years of age—is the oldest of the four coaches.
Two Top 100 Players—It is not all too often that the Patriot League can say they boast two of the better players in the country, but our friends over at Basketball Prospectus seem to think that Bucknell’s Mike Muscala and Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum are among the nation’s best. Muscala checked in at #82, while McCollum is #56.
C.J. McCollum Does Lehigh Proud—To continue the praise for McCollum, the rising junior from Canton, Ohio, was awarded the opportunity to try out for Team USA, currently competing in the World University Games in China. At only 19 years of age, McCollum was the youngest player to audition for the team. Although he was not fortunate enough to earn a spot on the roster, he did earn some nice praise from the coaching staff.
Billy Lange Departs for Villanova, Ed DeChellis In at Navy—In one of the most intriguing moves of the summer, former Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis elected to leave the Nittany Lions in favor of Navy. That is right, Navy. On the surface, this was a real shocker. How could a Patriot League bottom-dweller steal a head coach from a Big Ten squad coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance? It is purely speculation, but DeChellis ostensibly felt that his job at Penn State was not secure and that he would be joining the line of unemployment in the near future. Even with the NCAA appearance last season and winning the NIT in 2009, DeChellis compiled a less-than-stellar Big Ten record of 41-95 during his eight-year tenure. With graduation claiming the bulk of Penn State’s talent, next year looks awfully ominous for the Nittany Lions. In recent years, multiple reports have surfaced questioning Penn State’s level of commitment to its college basketball team, so perhaps all DeChellis was looking for was adequate support behind him.
Kevin Doyle is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. The PL is among the first of this season’s conference tournaments to tip, with action set to start tonight.
If Holy Cross somehow wins the Patriot League Tournament and advances on to the NCAA Tournament, they would have the worst winning percentage ever of a team in the field. Their 11-20 record would give them a winning percentage of .355. Currently, the team with the lowest percentage that competed in the NCAA Tournament was George Washington who entered the 1961 Tournament with a 9-16 record (.360). It really is not all too farfetched that the Crusaders win the Patriot League Championship. Five of their seven league losses came by four points or less, and both of their games with Bucknell went into the final minute. Speaking of the Crusaders, junior guard Devin Brown has been one of the best scorers in the league as of late, and is just two points away from reaching the 1,000 mark for his career. In his last nine games, Brown is averaging 23.2 points a game.
In my “Other 26” column, I remarked that Army is the only team in the country who is in last place in their league to have defeated the team in first place. By virtue of this occurrence, every team in the league—even those in the bottom half—should feel like they have a chance at attaining the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Best chance for an upset in the first round: Colgate over American. I am really going out on a limb with this one, but Colgate is a team that is surging—their record would not indicate it—as they have been taking the better teams in the league to the brink. Aside from a disastrous 20-point loss to Navy, the Raiders lost to Holy Cross by two and Bucknell by eight; they had an opportunity to win both games in the final minute. May they catch American looking ahead to a semifinal date with Holy Cross or Lafayette?
Predicted Champion: Bucknell. How can the Bison not be the clear favorite heading into the tournament? Aside from a hiccup at Christl Arena, Bucknell has been the most consistent team in the league and has some impressive non-conference wins to boot. Assuming Bucknell does in fact win the Patriot League, they are most likely looking at a 14-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Many things would have to fall in Bucknell’s direction and other teams would have to lose in order for them to receive a 13-seed.
Kevin Doyle is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League and a contributor.
A Look Back
A Clean Sweep for the Bison—Bucknell has won four of their last five games with their lone loss coming at the hands of a surprisingly strong Boston College team under first year coach Steve Donahue by just four points. During this stretch, Bucknell picked up the best non-conference win for the Patriot League as they beat La Salle 89-77; just days earlier the Explorers lost to Villanova by three points. Due to their strong play as a team and individually, Bucknell cleaned up with the weekly awards.
Top Four vs. Bottom Four—In the first edition of “Checking in on the Patriot League,” I highlighted the disparity between the top four and bottom four teams in the league. Since that first stretch of the season, not much has changed. Back on November 27th, the collective records of the top four teams—American, Bucknell, Lehigh, and Army—were 13-8, a winning percentage of .619. The collective records of the bottom four—Navy, Lafayette, Holy Cross, and Colgate—were 3-17, a paltry winning percentage of .150. Fast forward a month, and those bottom four teams are still bring up the rear. The record of the top four is 25-23, a .521 winning percentage. As for the bottom four, well you may want to cover your eyes for this: 9-38, a .191 winning percentage. U-G-L-Y.
Struggles in the Basement—In further investigating the bottom four teams in the league, Navy and Lafayette have at least picked up four wins each and have somewhat respectable records. Holy Cross and Colgate, however, are a combined 1-19. Colgate is the winless one of the two, and will struggle to pick up a victory before league play begins.
One of the Mid-Major’s Best—C.J. McCollum has established himself as one of the best players in all of Mid-Major basketball. He had a big year last year as just a freshman, and has only built on that success. Among Mid-Major players, McCollum is seventh in scoring at 22.5 points a game and he is also corralling an impressive 7.7 rebounds for a guy that is listed at just 6-3. I have been saying this for some time now, but McCollum is the Patriot League’s best player since Adonal Foyle.
Team of the Weeks (Dec. 9-Dec. 22): Bucknell: Losing three straight games may have just been what the Bison needed to jump-start them with the last of the three losses coming against a very mediocre Wagner team. Since the losing streak, Bucknell has won four of five games and their offense is clicking on all cylinders. The emergence of Mike Muscala as one of the league’s premier big men, the continual steady play at the point guard position from Darryl Shazier, and contributions from freshman Cameron Ayers have all been highlighted in Bucknell’s recent success. One needs to look no further than how many points the Bison have average during this streak (73.8) than they did in their previous eight games (65) to see the progression of the team. Ironically, the best performance during the five game stretch came in their lone loss against Boston College. Bucknell took BC to the final minute before losing by four to the ACC squad.
Player of the Weeks (Dec. 9-Dec. 22): Mike Muscala, Bucknell: Since the La Salle game on December 17th, the stellar sophomore has become a focal point in the Bison offense. Muscala was largely responsible for leading Bucknell to the victory of the Explorers as he poured in 21 points while dishing out five assists—five assists are pretty impressive for a 6-10 guy. He followed up this outing with another solid one as he nearly had a double-double (20/9) in a win at Cornell. Maybe the most impressive statistic over the past three games for Muscala is his shooting efficiency from the field and free throw line. He is 13-15 from the line (87%) and 21-36 from the field (58%).
Freshman of the Weeks (Dec. 9-Dec. 22): Cameron Ayers: From a pure numbers standpoint, Ayers was not overly impressive, but neither was any freshman in the PL for the past two weeks. The freshman from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, has become a fixture on the wing for Bucknell when spelling Bryson Johnson and Bryan Cohen. In the victory over La Salle, Ayers was 6-9 from the field for 13 points and pulled down four rebounds.
Clip of the Week
The two Washington D.C. based schools—American and Navy—competed in the BB&T classic. Navy had one of the league’s better wins this year defeating George Washington, while American hung tough but eventually succumbed to Florida.
Quote of the Week
La Salle head coach Dr. John Giannini on how impressed he was with Bucknell’s performance: “Bucknell was really good…if I wasn’t getting beaten so soundly, I would have really enjoyed watching them play. They were wonderful and we were far short of that.”
Power Rankings (Last week’s ranking in parentheses)
1. Bucknell (2) (6-7)
Previous Two Weeks: W La Salle 89-77, W Cornell 75-64, L Boston College 84-80
Next Two Weeks: 12/28 @ Loyola (MD), 12/30 vs. Dartmouth, 1/2 @ Richmond
After dissecting the success Bucknell has had over the past two weeks, as well as what key players have made them successful for much of the article already, you probably do not need to hear much more about the Bison. One final point on Bucknell though, the scoring balance and unselfish play is largely what has made them tough to beat lately—seven players are averaging six points or more.
2. American (1) (7-5)
Previous Two Weeks: W UMBC 66-53, L Northwestern 78-62, W Mount St. Mary’s 69-64, L Pittsburgh 61-46
Next Two Weeks: 12/29 vs. Fordham, 1/3 vs. Brown
The Eagles have pretty much done everything that was predicted of them thus far. No one expected them to defeat West Virginia, Florida, Northwestern, or Pittsburgh, and they predictably did not. In fact, they lost all these games by double digits. American, however, may only get better as the year progresses and they move into league play as transfer Charles Hinkle joined AU via Vanderbilt and became eligible to play just four games ago. Hinkle, along with transfer Troy Brewer, are still finding their identity within the American lineup. It does seem that Brewer has found a nice niche for himself as he is averaging over 12 points a game.
3. Lehigh (3) (6-5)
Previous Two Weeks: W Marist 91-78, W St. Francis (PA) 79-61
Next Two Weeks: 12/29 vs. St. Peter’s, 12/31 @ Yale, 1/4 @ NJIT
The Mountain Hawks bounced back from two straight losses with convincing wins against Marist and St. Francis (PA). C.J. McCollum was once again the top man for Lehigh in both games as he dropped in 35 against Marist and then 20 against St. Francis (PA). While most of the attention will always be given to McCollum—how couldn’t it be—the players surrounding the Lehigh stud sophomore have played well as of late. Michael Ojo is one of the top shooters in the PL from three, Gabe Knutson has established himself as one of the top big men, and freshman point guard Mackey McKnight has been as steady as they come boasting a 2.75 assist to turnover ratio. With the continued solid play of McCollum’s supporting cast, Lehigh becomes a contender in the PL.
4. Army (7) (6-6)
My apologies to Black Knight fans out there for my analysis and comments I made of Army two weeks ago. While Army still is not one of the better teams in the Patriot League, their wins over UNH and Brown in the last two weeks should not go unnoticed. The victory over Brown is their best on the year, and their ability to score the ball is as good as any team in the PL. Still, Army has played the weakest schedule in the league, and it is hard to gauge how they will perform come league play. The three headed monster of Julian Simmons, Jeremy Hence, and Ella Ellis have posed problems for many teams thus far and will be tough for any PL team to match up against. How Army performs against a good Fairfield team after the New Year will be a good barometer as to how they will match up with the upper tier teams in the Patriot League.
Previous Two Weeks: W New Hampshire 71-63, L Dartmouth 71-68, L Long Island 91-85, W Brown 88-86
Next Two Weeks: 12/29 @ Texas-Pan American, 12/31 @ Fairfield, 1/3 vs. Dartmouth
5. Navy (4) (4-9)
It is a really funny game, basketball is. Without their best player in Jordan Sugars, Navy went 2-1, and upon his return they have gone 1-3. It is not as if the Midshipmen have been playing world beaters either during this four game stretch, nor has Sugars been playing poorly (19 points and 6.5 rebounds) since returning to the lineup following an injury to his non-shooting hand, but for whatever reason they have dropped three winnable games in a row. Navy will have a chance to pick up a few wins against Long Island, Presbyterian, and Longwood before going up against league favorite Bucknell in their Patriot League opener.
Previous Two Weeks: L Mercer 73-68, L Elon 73-58
Next Two Weeks: 12/30 vs. Long Island, 1/2 vs. Presbyterian, 1/4 vs. Longwood
6. Lafayette (6) (4-8)
After bouncing back from a four game losing streak by winning three in a row, Lafayette has dropped their last two decisions continuing the rollercoaster season. Both of the losses were single digits and against formidable opponents who may challenge for their respective league crowns. Lafayette’s shooting ability is not being called into question—they connect on seven threes a game—but their ability to rebound the ball has marred them on many occasions. Against LIU, the Leopards were outrebounded 39-24, and against URI it was 37-28. Corralling a rebound means another possession, and with how well Lafayette can shoot this may mean the differences between wins and losses.
Previous Two Weeks: L Long Island 85-80, L Rhode Island 73-65
Next Two Weeks: 12/29 @ Gonzaga, 1/2 @ Fairleigh Dickinson, 1/5 vs. Columbia
7. Holy Cross (5) (1-9)
The monkey is finally off of Milan Brown’s back. The first year Holy Cross coach picked up his first win with the Cross by defeating Marist. There is not too much to celebrate in ‘Sader Nation though as his team is 1-9 about a third of the way through the season. Over at ESPN.com, Mark Adams wrote in his weekly Mid-Major piece that: “Brown is a good coach, but he’s now in a situation which he has to pick up the pieces from a dysfunctional situation.” While he is the third coach in as many seasons for Holy Cross, there is little doubt that the Crusaders have some talent. They were picked to win the league two years ago, and the roster from that squad is pretty similar to the one this year. There have been subtle flashes that this team can get it together, but little progress has been made since the loss to the College of Charleston to open the year. The Patriot League is, by and large, a fairly weak conference this year, so the Crusaders may be able to pick up some Ws when league play rolls around.
Previous Two Weeks: L Fairfield 71-60, W Marist 75-57, L Hofstra 71-56
Next Two Weeks: 12/28 vs. St. Joseph’s, 12/31 @ George Washington, 1/2 vs. Sacred Heart, 1/5 vs. Yale
8. Colgate (8) (0-10)
Previous Two Weeks: L Syracuse 100-43, L Maine 78-57, L Albany 63-61
Next Two Weeks: 12/29 @ Stony Brook, 1/2 @ Longwood, 1/4 @ Maryland
Things appear to be spiraling out of control up in Hamilton, New York. First, there were high expectations for John Brandenburg, a transfer from Virginia, coming into the season, but he has not lived up to these hopes as he is averaging 3.7 points and 2.4 rebounds. Then, arguably the Raiders’ best player Mike Venezia went down with an injury after the first six games. Immediately following Venezia’s injury, Colgate was humiliated by Syracuse losing 100-43 and scoring only eight points in the first half—a Carrier Dome record for a half. Colgate will most likely enter league play having not won a game as their next three games are on the road against decent competition. Their game against Longwood may be their only saving grace.
A Look Ahead
Four teams who are .500 or better, maybe?—According to KenPom, the Patriot League is ranked at the 27th best conference. While it is clear that the PL is not having one of their stronger years in recent memory, but the top four teams all still have an opportunity to reach the .500 mark or better by the end of non-conference competition.
Bucknell’s final game before conference play begins is against Richmond. While I believe, win or lose against the Spiders, that Bucknell is the team to beat this year, they can officially set themselves apart from the rest of the pack with a victory against Richmond.
After a tough six-game stretch against four very solid BCS opponents, American comes back down to earth with two games against mediocre opponents in Fordham and Brown. Wins here and the Eagles would enter league play at 9-5, certainly feeling good about themselves.
Will Colgate and HolyCross combine for just a single victory in the non-conference schedule? Sadly, it is a distinct possibility. Colgate’s final three non-conference games are on the road, and one of the opponents is Maryland. Holy Cross, on the contrary, has two in Worcester and two on the road, but they will likely be underdogs in three of the games.