Philadelphia, PA –
OUTLOOK: While the Patriot League is always focused on the student-athletes, with a significant emphasis on the former, this year the league gets a boost from a high-profile addition in the coaching ranks. Former Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis, who spent the last eight seasons in Happy Valley building a Nittany Lions program to compete against the big boys of the Big Ten, is now the top man with the United States Naval Academy, a move that instantly renews interest in the Midshipmen and the Patriot League altogether on the hardwood.
Unfortunately for DeChellis, Navy is again expected to be struggling for success, as will the other academy program from West Point, but never let it be said that these players won't still give it their all when the cards are stacked against them.
While DeChellis might grab the early headlines for the Patriot League, at least from a national standpoint, it will be Bucknell and Lehigh which will generate wins and momentum from the very start. Last year, the Bison made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and with so much talent returning to the squad this time around, coming up short of that would be a disappointment. But standing in their way is Lehigh standout C.J. McCollum, who can do it all and promises to bring plenty of energy and tenacity each time he steps onto the floor.
There may be a few surprises here and there from the rest of the Patriot programs, particularly Holy Cross which also has a strong cast of characters, but this season is made for Bucknell.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Bucknell
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Bucknell; 2. Lehigh; 3. Holy Cross; 4. Lafayette; 5. American; 6. Colgate; 7. Navy; 8. Army
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
BUCKNELL: As long as the Bison keep from believing the hype they should be alright this season as the team that everyone else in the Patriot League is chasing. Bucknell, which won the Patriot League title a year ago is stocked with top-notch talent ready to make another run into the postseason and quite honestly the only thing that could stop the squad is itself right now. Head coach Dave Paulsen, a winner at every level, has the luxury of bringing back four starters from a year ago which means all-league performer Mike Muscala doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting himself. Last season, Muscala was named the Patriot League Player of the Year based on his 14.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots per contest for a team that posted a 25-9 record overall and finished with just a single league setback in 14 opportunities. In line for national recognition as well, Muscala knows that he doesn't have to do it alone in Lewisburg, PA and will gain plenty of support from Bryson Johnson (11.7 ppg), who will again open up the middle if he can come anywhere close to shooting 45.6 percent from three-point range as he did last season. Joe Williams (7.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Bryan Cohen (7.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg) already know what's expected of them as returning starters, and Cameron Ayers (7.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg) has a chance to pick up quality minutes after being one of the top reserves for the program a year ago. As long as the Bison can get off to a strong start against some tough non-conference opponents (Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Princeton, Syracuse), the league will be their's for the taking.
LEHIGH: American head coach Jeff Jones joked that he thought about doing the rest of the league a favor when he saw Lehigh's C.J. McCollum stepping out of a car in a parking lot at the Patriot League Media Day, perhaps the only time McCollum could be handled is by striking him with 2,000 lbs of metal. But all joking aside, McCollum is the face of the Patriot League again this year, already earning some national recognition and the preseason favorite as player of the year as the top returning scorer in Division I play after putting up 21.8 ppg. But so much more than just a scorer, the guard was also responsible for 7.8 rpg and 2.5 steals per outing as a sophomore with the Mountain Hawks. Head coach Brett Reed knows full well that his is one of the team's that the rest of the league will be gunning for and just making the NCAA Tournament as they did last year won't be good enough. Forward Gabe Knutson (12.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is another key member of the unit who will take some of the pressure off McCollum and could easily be an all-league performer himself if the opportunities present themselves for him to take charge. Mackey McKnight (7.6 ppg) and Holden Greiner (6.4 ppg) will be significant contributors, but one of the factors that might keep Lehigh from pressing for the league title again this season is a lack of senior leadership according to coach Reed. The pressure of being on the road for so long to kick off the 2011-12 campaign will indicate just how much resolve this group has, as will the season-opening game against St. John's on national television.
HOLY CROSS: Last season, the Crusaders were challenged with a very tough non- conference schedule and far more road games than most teams, and while the squad didn't shy away from the difficult slate, it also didn't do them any good as they won just one game prior to kicking off the Patriot League schedule the second week of January. Head coach Milan Brown surely was optimistic heading into his first season with Holy Cross, given the high expectations for a program that has been one of the leaders in the league for several years, but now we'll see what he and his athletes learned from such a difficult chain of events. Perhaps the biggest mystery awaiting the Crusaders is whether or not R.J. Evans will be able to bounce back from an injury that kept him out of much of the 2010-11 campaign. The 2008-09 Patriot League Rookie of the Year, Evans was responsible for 13.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in 2009-10 and could again be a leader on the floor just by his presence. Getting more of the spotlight, at least until Evans can show that he again deserves more attention, is senior guard Devin Brown who generated 15.4 ppg as he connected on 60-of-167 three-pointers a year ago when he was named Second-Team All-Patriot League. Providing even more senior leadership in the backcourt is Mike Cavataio (8.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg), but what the Crusaders really need is someone to step up and take the place of Andrew Keister who departed after averaging 12.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest a year ago.
LAFAYETTE: Even though head coach Fran O'Hanlon might be the class clown when he gets together with his fellow Patriot League coaches, the truth is you don't get to stick around with a program, any program, for 17 years without proving yourself when it counts. O'Hanlon, the three-time Patriot League Coach of the Year, had a disappointing 2010-11 with the Leopards as the team fell six games under .500 (13-19) and tied for fourth in the league standings (6-8), so now is the time for him to show how well he can talk his kids up and get them to follow their leader. It won't be easy by any means, especially with the team losing a huge bruiser in the paint in Jared Mintz (15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg). What happens now is senior guard Jim Moyer vies for top billing after posting 12.3 ppg, thanks in large part to his 38.5 percent shooting from three-point range. Another player not to be ignored is Ryan Willen, a 37.2 percent three-point shooter in his own right who averaged 10.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game last year, all while hitting the books as a Neuroscience Major. Willen is a perfect example of how Patriot League players are student- athletes in the truest sense. Senior guard Tony Johnson (8.5 ppg, 3.8 apg) will give the squad some defensive strength, having recorded 47 steals a season ago. Ranked second in the league and 15th nationally, the Leopards made good on an impressive 76.1 percent at the free-throw line last season, the sort of accuracy the team will again need this year in close games.
AMERICAN: During the Patriot League Media Day, American head coach Jeff Jones announced that his team had been having some strong practices in preparation for the new season. At the same time he also noted that his remolded group had some poor practices as well and that level of honesty will go a long way in explaining why the Eagles might be challenged coming out of the gate this season. The team has lost a total of four starters from a group that posted a 22-9 record overall and an impressive 11-3 mark versus the rest of the Patriot. The biggest, most unexpected blow to the program came over the summer when All-Patriot forward Stephen Lumpkins was signed as a pitcher by the Kansas City Royals. Lumpkins (13.5 ppg) was supposed to be the top returning scorer for the Eagles, but now that honor falls to Troy Brewer (11.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg) who has the weight of the world on his shoulders as the lone returning starter. Beyond Brewer there is very little experience, or perhaps previous productivity is more like it, with guys like Charles Hinkle (4.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg) and Daniel Munoz (3.0 ppg, 1.9 apg) being asked to step up their efforts. Junior Blake Jolivette and senior Simon McCormack will have to show some leadership when they do hit the floor, in games and in practice, in order for this group to survive. As long as the Eagles can come close to the defensive pressure they applied last year, holding opponents to just 63.6 ppg to lead the league, they'll have a chance to record more than a few upsets.
COLGATE: A protege of Temple head coach Fran Dunphy, for whom he coached under the last five years and played for while at Penn, Matt Langel enters the ranks of the Patriot League as one of the youngest head coaches (33 years old) at the Division I level. Langel, won continues to keep in touch with his mentor and even reaches out to coach Dunphy when making major decisions about his new program, has quite a bit of work to do with the Raiders after the team won a total of just seven games last season and finished 4-10 in league action. The team was brutalized with a heavy dose of road tests from the very beginning and perhaps that disappointing start kept Colgate from ever bouncing back and being competitive against the rest of the league. Getting more production out of senior guard Mike Venezia (9.6 ppg) will be the first order of business for coach Langel as he tries to get the New Jersey native to be even more assertive at the offensive end of the floor. The same goes for junior guard Mitch Rolls, a member of the 2009-10 Patriot League All-Rookie Team who generated 8.5 points and handed out 3.7 assists per game last year. Senior forward Yaw Gyawu, a member of the all-rookie team when he broke into the league, gives the Raiders some experience in the post after putting up 12.6 points and pulling down 4.5 rebounds per game a year ago, but he'll need to pick up the pace on the glass. The biggest key for Colgate is to dial down the turnovers after posting 15.8 miscues per game last season, which was most in the Patriot and ranged the squad 308th nationally.
NAVY: DeChellis brings immediate attention to the Navy program, but that might not be the best thing for a squad that is trying desperately to break out of the doldrums. However, that could work in favor of senior guard Jordan Sugars who is primed to again make a significant contribution on the hardwood for the Mids. A preseason All-Patriot League selection and a 2010-11 Second-Team All- Patriot performer, Sugars is coming off a season in which he averaged 16.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per outing, which means he is second among returning scorers in the Patriot League. However, assuming that DeChellis tries to slow down the pace and make Navy less of an up-tempo squad like they were under Billy Lange, the points might be harder to come by for Sugars. While Sugars is capable of hitting the glass for the Midshipmen, they'll need to get more players into the paint in order to balance the scales after the program placed last in the league and was 333rd nationally with a rebounding margin of minus-9.4 per game. J.J. Avila (11.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) has the size to take some pounding in the paint, as does 6-7 forward James Loupos, but if DeChellis really wants to shake things up he'll throw newcomer Jared Smoot into the fire to see what a 6-10 body could do for Navy.
ARMY: If not for taking out a few lightweights last season (Vassar, NJIT, Bryant and Texas-Pan American), the Black Knights would have been even more disappointing than their 11-19 overall record. Then again Army, and all of the service academies for that matter, need to be given a little leeway considering how much the players have on their plate, in addition to actually hitting the books. Third-year head coach Zach Spiker has put together a decent two-year record with the squad (25-34), but producing just seven league wins in two seasons is still tough to swallow. However, things could be looking up for the Knights as they bring back junior forward Ella Ellis (14.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and senior guard Julian Simmons (12.5 ppg). Losing Jeremy Hence (15.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) will be tough to overcome for sure, but Army has no choice in the matter and hopefully someone like Jason Pancoe will help bridge the gap. Ranked fifth in the Patriot and 196th nationally in scoring last season with 67.9 ppg, the Black Knights could be tested during the first week of the season in that department with a possible matchup against VMI (87.9 ppg) as part of the All-Military Classic in Colorado Springs. Oddly enough, as coach Spiker joked about at media day, Navy's not invited to the party out west.