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.
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.
There may be no hotter player in the country right now than C.J. McCollum, who has connected on 21 of his 38 three-point attempts this season.
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.
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.