Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: Excited and optimistic, those were the words used most by the head coaches at the 2014-15 Patriot League Men's Basketball Media Day.
In some cases those words were sincere, in others it was done tongue-in-cheek by a group of men who truly enjoy each other's company.
It is important to note that the team picked to finish ninth in the standings heading into last season, ended up taking the title as American stunned more than a few people in the Patriot. With that in mind, the coaches understand that almost anything is possible in this student-athlete centered league, and even one break here or there could define a squad for an entire campaign.
While the Eagles claimed 13 first-place votes in the preseason poll, a surprising Army squad grabbed five such votes, which goes to show how much respect voters have for a team that finished a game under .500 overall last season. The only other first-place votes doled out went to Holy Cross, a perennial favorite in the Patriot.
Second-tier competition can be found at Lafayette, Bucknell and Boston University, the latter being the popular pick to take the crown last season, its first in the Patriot. The other program that is playing a second season in the league is Loyola Maryland, a former Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference member, but the prospects are not quite as positive for the Greyhounds at the outset.
Colgate and Navy figure to bring up the rear, but at least one positive for the Midshipmen is that they are finally getting some much-needed senior leadership which could reverse their fortunes a bit, although it certainly doesn't help that the Academy has Michigan State, Notre Dame and Providence lined up for the first three games of the season.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: American
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. American, 2. Army, 3. Holy Cross, 4. Lafayette, 5. Bucknell, 6. Boston University, 7. Lehigh, 8. Colgate, 9. Loyola Maryland, 10. Navy
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
AMERICAN: Head coach Mike Brennan is bringing back a huge chunk of his offense from last season, his first with the Eagles, when the team was an impressive 20-13 overall and 13-5 in league action. Don't let his name fool you because Pee Wee Gardner is a big-time player for American, and an all-league selection heading into the 2014-15 campaign. Last season, he posted 11.3 points, 4.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds per contest, showing that he can do it all when asked. Guard Jesse Reed is back after posting 13.8 ppg and 4.4 rpg, as is John Schoof, responsible for 11.4 ppg and 3.0 rpg. Overall, the Eagles retain eight of their top nine scorers, but missing from that list is First-Team All- Patriot League pick Tony Wroblicky and his 12.2 points and 7.2 caroms per contest. Even though the Eagles have been picked to come out on top in the Patriot, the team's non-conference schedule is rather brutal and could have the squad digging out of a deep hole by the end of the calendar year. The fact that American plays at home only twice before the first week of January certainly won't help matters.
ARMY: It is not often that the Black Knights head into a season brimming with confidence, but there are huge expectations at West Point this season given the talent that head coach Zach Spiker has coming back. Now entering his sixth season at the helm, Spiker has transformed Army into an offensive powerhouse, at least that's what the stats from last season indicate as the team led the league in scoring with 72.4 ppg. Much of the responsibility for keeping up the pace set last season will fall on Kyle Wilson, the Patriot League Preseason Player of the Year, who in 2013-14 led the league in scoring with 18.4 ppg. Still just a junior, Wilson has fellow third-year players Tanner Plomb (10.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Dylan Cox (9.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.8 apg) and Kevin Ferguson (9.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.5 bpg) all ready to shoulder some of the load for a program that is looking ahead to a better finish than 15-16 overall. The Knights are set to kick off the campaign by hosting the All-Military Classic in its final year, a positive way to get the ball rolling for sure, but then the team has road games against the likes of Duke, Delaware and USC prior to Christmas.
HOLY CROSS: A third-place finish in the Patriot League regular season is certainly nothing to sneeze at, unless you are a team like Holy Cross that is always expecting bigger and better things. The Crusaders, under head coach Milan Brown who is now entering his fifth season, posted 12 wins in 18 chances against the rest of the League last season, but in the end the team went from defeating Lehigh in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, to losing to American in the semis. Granted, with an overall record of 20-14 the team deserved some exposure in the postseason, but beating Brown and then losing to Yale in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament was far from satisfying. Coach Brown does have reason to be optimistic these days however, given that he welcomes back the majority of his offense, including Malcolm Miller who posted 11.0 ppg to go along with 5.7 rpg and 2.1 apg in earning third-team All-Patriot League honors. Ready to aid Miller, a Preseason All-Patriot pick this time around, are Anthony Thompson (9.4 ppg), Justin Burrell (8.9 ppg), Cullen Hamilton (8.2 ppg) and Eric Green (7.9 ppg). Outside of games against Harvard, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the non-conference schedule appears to be quite favorable for Holy Cross this time around.
LAFAYETTE: The Leopards are a team that struggled in a big way last season, finishing in a tie for seventh place in the Patriot League standings at just 6-12, while posting a mere 11-20 mark overall and yet head coach Fran O'Hanlon carries enough weight, entering his 20th season, in order for his team to be picked to finish in the top half of the standings this time around. The fact that O'Hanlon returns every player who scored a point last season certainly helps the cause, so at least there is that measure of experience to help during the drive. Senior guard Seth Hinrichs will draw most of the attention from opponents since he is a preseason all-league selection who has much to prove after missing 10 games a season ago. Hinrichs was responsible for 16.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, en route to being named an all-league performer. His supporting cast includes Dan Trist (12.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Bryce Scott (11.5 ppg, 2.0 apg), Joey Ptasinski (11.4 ppg) and Nick Lindner (10.8 ppg, 4.0 apg). Last season, Lafayette placed second in the league in scoring with 71.4 ppg, but the defense was rather weak as it not only finished last in the Patriot with 74.7 ppg allowed, but ranked 287th in the country. With that in mind, you can be sure that non-conference opponents such as West Virginia and Kansas will do all they can to run up the score on the Leopards.
BUCKNELL: A perennial favorite to be found at or near the top of the Patriot League standings year in and year out, the Bison appear to be taking a break from their dominance these days. Last season, head coach Dave Paulsen managed to drive his guys to a fourth-place finish in the Patriot at 11-7, sporting a record of 16-14 overall, but the team was immediately booted from the league tournament by a feisty Army squad in the quarterfinals. So now, the Bison have gone from winning three straight regular-season titles to also losing several key performers from a team that could not get beyond the Black Knights last March. The biggest loss is 2014 Patriot League Player of the Year Cameron Ayers and his 15.4 ppg, although that should open the door for some of his support performers to step up their games. One of those is Chris Haas (11.1 ppg), who was a third-team All-Patriot selection, followed by the versatile Steven Kaspar (6.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.6 apg). Other players with experience returning are Dom Hoffman, Cory Starkey, John Azzinaro and Ryan Frazier. Like so many of the Patriot members who set themselves up for slaughter against national powerhouse programs, Bucknell is no different this season with trips to Michigan and Villanova in back-to-back outings in November, not to mention a stop at Wake Forest a few days before Christmas.
BOSTON UNIVERSITY: Head coach Joe Jones jumped into the Patriot last season with his Terriers. who were thought to be the big dogs in the neighborhood, and while the team posted an impressive 24-11 record and a first-place finish in the regular season in the Patriot (15-3), the squad lost to American in the title game and then bowed to Illinois in the first round of the NIT. Unfortunately, getting to a postseason tournament this time around will probably be a lot more difficult, since the team lost All-Patriot League performers Maurice Watson Jr. and D.J. Irving at the guard positions, and forward Dom Morris. Still hanging around is John Papale as the top returning scorer with his 9.3 ppg. Additional support will come from Cedric Hankerson (6.0 ppg) and Nathan Dieudonne (5.2 ppg), a pair of proven commodities who will get their chance to contribute even more to the cause. Transfers Eric Fanning and Blaise Mbargorba are eligible to play now after sitting out a season, but still much remains to be seen for a BU team that has road tests against top-ranked Kentucky, Harvard and Dayton in the early going.
LEHIGH: The Mountain Hawks were put on the map a few years back by the play of guard C.J. McCollum, currently in the NBA, but now the team must continue to soldier on without him and that can be a very daunting task for head coach Brett Reed who is entering his eighth campaign at the helm. Lehigh took a few steps back last season, their first without McCollum, as expected but still remained relevant with a 7-11 mark in league action and 14-18 overall. Bringing back seven of its top eight scorers from 2013-14 sounds like a reason to celebrate, but there is still much that needs to be done in order for the Mountain Hawks to even entertain the notion of challenging for the league title in the immediate future. Coach Reed will be leaning heavily on Tim Kempton, the reigning Patriot League Rookie of the Year who is now a preseason all-league pick after averaging 13.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest. Jesse Chuku (8.7 ppg), Austin Price (8.4 ppg) and Corey Schaefer (8.3 ppg) will offer up plenty of support, but the team will still feel the sting after losing Mackey McKnight, a second-team All-Patriot League selection last season when he averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 assists per outing.
COLGATE: Last season, the Raiders lived and died with their 3-point shooting, ranking not only first in the league in treys per game (8.4), but placing 21st nationally as well. The squad knocked down an impressive 39.6 percent out on the perimeter, second in the Patriot and 11th in the country, but this season Colgate might want to rethink its approach on offense in an effort to at least reach the .500 mark. Head coach Matt Langel signed on with the Raiders in 2011, bringing the philosophy he learned from Temple's Fran Dunphy along with him, but the third-year coach is still waiting for his big reward. However, Langel has seen improvement in his squad, going from 2-12 in league play the first year to 5-9 and a tie for sixth place a season ago. The bad news this time around is that Murphy Burnatowski, a Second-Team All-Patriot League selection who put up 14.2 ppg is no longer at his disposal. The good news is that Langel does have a sizeable portion of the players who were responsible for so many of those successful 3-pointers, with the return of Austin Tillotson who averaged 13.3 points and 4.4 assists per outing, followed by Ethan Jacobs (11.5 ppg) and Damon Sherman-Newsome (11.3 ppg). Those players will be put to the test early on with non-conference stops at Arizona State, Ohio State and Syracuse in the first five weeks of action.
LOYOLA MARYLAND: Along with Boston University, Loyola is the other newcomer to the Patriot after defecting from the MAAC a couple years ago. The Greyhounds, under second-year head coach G.G. Smith (son of Tubby), struggled in 2013-14 to earn respect in the Patriot as they finished tied for seventh at 6-12 and won a total of only 11 games in 30 opportunities. It was a test that Smith had to endure, and 2014-15 looks quite similar unfortunately. One can only imagine how the Greyhounds would have performed had star Dylon Cormier not gone down with an injury, seeing as how he was filling up the stat sheet with 21.2 ppg. Cormier's injury effectively ended his college career, but at the same time opened the door for some of his teammates to prove their worth and that will continue this season as Jarred Jones (8.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Eric Laster (8.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and R.J. Williams (8.3 ppg, 4.0 apg, 2.2 spg) all aim to become the go-to guy on offense for Loyola. Tyler Hubbard (6.2 ppg) and Franz Rassman (5.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg) also showed potential for solid contributions, but still it appears as though the Greyhounds, who have meetings with Butler, Syracuse and Saint Joseph's on the road, will be bringing up the rear this year. One interesting note has G.G. Smith facing off against Texas Tech and father Tubby in the season opener.
NAVY: There's nothing like being picked to finish last in your conference and having to open the new season against national power Michigan State. If that were not bad enough, the Midshipmen are slated to drop in on Notre Dame two days later and then visit Providence, all of which should provide a massive wake-up call for Navy and head coach Ed DeChellis. The former Penn State coach is entering his fourth campaign in Annapolis, and the prospects of digging out of the cellar is rather scary. Of the 345 Division I teams that the NCAA charted last season, Navy finished 342nd in scoring (60.7 ppg) as it shot a woeful 40.1 percent (330th) from the floor. Perhaps even more astounding is the fact that the Midshipmen knocked down a mere 63.5 percent at the free- throw line, worst in the Patriot and 334th in the country. So, with that being said, one wonders how well the team will do when there are actually defenders in front of them? After posting a record of 9-21 overall and a 4-14 league ledger, Navy figures to be in a similar situation in 2014-15, even though Worth Smith (11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Brandon Venturini (11.5, 3.1 rpg) are a year older. The return of Tilman Dunbar (11.9 ppg, 5.0 apg), who was the team's top scorer and one of the assist leaders in the Patriot League before missing the final 20 games a year ago, will also be critical, but not enough to reverse the fortunes at the Academy.