Aaron Schuldiner (@shealiveson) is a freelance writer. He filed this report after taking in the first Army-Navy basketball game this year, a win for the Midshipmen on January 20. The two schools will play for the 91st time on the hardwood this Saturday in Annapolis.
Upon the fields of friendly strife, are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory. –- Douglas MacArthur, USMA Class of 1903
It’s a brisk Sunday afternoon in West Point, NY, but it’s like a sauna inside Christl Arena. Despite it being a holiday weekend on campus, the building is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with more than 5,000 fans and spectators, most of whom are standing quietly in front of their seats. The Black Knights of Army are assembled near the foul line at the far end of the court, facing the corner of the stands where their band is delivering the alma mater of the United States Military Academy. It’s only been a few minutes since the final buzzer sounded, closing the book on a tough 59-50 loss to their rivals from Annapolis. Yet here the Black Knights stand, at attention, with the Midshipmen of Navy by their side, each honoring their Academy and their opponent. In a moment, the Army players in their home whites and the Midshipmen in Navy blue and gold will walk together to the opposite end of the floor, where the winning team’s band readies to play the alma mater of the Naval Academy. “If you win, they play your alma mater second,” says Brennan Wyatt, a junior guard at Navy and one of just three upperclassmen on the roster. “So it’s always a better time if you hear your alma mater second, but … you have to show them respect like they show us respect, win or lose. I mean, it really does go back to respect, and how both teams, I feel, respect each other a lot as people, and as basketball players.”
A Game Between Mid-Majors With More Than Patriot League Standings on the Line (credit: A. Schuldiner)
If you look for it, you can see joy on the faces of the Midshipmen and disappointment on the faces of the Black Knights, but for these few moments, there are no overt displays of celebration or sorrow. Basketball emotions are on hold while the players from both academies pay respect to principles that are bigger than the events of the past few hours. It’s a unique scene, and one that can’t help but reaffirm your faith in sportsmanship. In a culture that’s often too preoccupied with the accomplishments of the individual to be bothered with the team concept, the Army-Navy basketball rivalry is a breath of fresh air. Among the cadets, the success of the team comes first. Where their futures will take them, it has to.
The stakes are high and the rivalry is fierce, but showboating and trash talk are noticeably absent. You won’t see a player disrespect his opponent for the sake of self-promotion in an Army-Navy game. “We’re both Academy schools and we hold ourselves higher,” says Ella Ellis, a senior forward for Army and the ninth-leading scorer in program history. “There definitely won’t be any taunting in that game. It’s definitely a rivalry, but we also have to remember that after this is said and done, we’ll be brothers in arms.”
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.
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.