Move over Bucknell, there's a new darling in the Patriot League.
Lehigh, it's your time to shine.
These are heady basketball times in the brainy Patriot League, whose member schools are more known for academics than athletics.
But the Mountain Hawks captured the college basketball world's attention in March when, as a No. 15 seed, they upset second-seeded Duke, 75-70 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was by far the biggest win in Patriot League history since ... Bucknell beat Kansas in another first-round shocker in 2005.
Guess which two teams are favored to duel for Patriot League supremacy this year?
"I don't necessarily view (Bucknell) as a rivalry to me," said Lehigh star guard C.J. McCollum, a preseason All-America selection. "I look at them as a team that's in the way of a (Patriot League) championship, and I'm sure they look at us the same way."
Not only are they top two teams, but Lehigh and Bucknell also arguably have the league's top two players. McCollum (21.9 points, 6.5 rebounds) is the Patriot League's preseason player of the year for the third straight season; center Mike Muscala (17.0 points, 9.1 rebounds) is Bucknell's anchor in the middle.
Bucknell won the regular-season title last year, only to lose the conference tournament championship game on its home court to in-state rival Lehigh. Coach Brett Reed got the Mountain Hawks into the NCAAs after Gabe Knutson blocked Cameron Ayers' baseline layup attempt with 7 seconds left to preserve a one-point lead. Foul shots ended up giving Lehigh an 82-77 win.
So Bucknell came close to getting into the NCAAs a second straight year and putting a premature end to Lehigh's success story.
"There's that extra edge," Bison coach Dave Paulsen said. "Every one of our guys gives polite respect to Lehigh."
But both McCollum and Paulsen are quick to note they aren't focusing on anything but their tough opening games. Both teams start the season Friday — Lehigh travels to No. 19 Baylor, while Bucknell goes to Purdue.
"We want to even that score," Paulsen said. "But you've got to find that balance. You've got to play Purdue first ... There's a real danger with getting too far ahead."
Besides McCollum and Muscala, both teams have savvy veterans across the floor.
Knutson (12.2 points, 5.6 rebounds) and Holden Greiner (9.4 points, 4.8 rebounds) provide senior experience and muscle up front. Quick junior Mackey McKnight (8.8 points, 3.6 assists) is McCollum's backcourt running mate and had a season-high 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting in the 70-58 loss to Xavier in the third round of the NCAAs.
"We expect big things from our senior class," McCollum said. But, he adds, "Mackey will be the key for our team ... We need him for all-around performance."
Muscala has company, too. Forward Joe Willman (10.7 points, 4.9 rebounds) teams with Muscala in the frontcourt, while fellow senior Bryson Johnson (9.3 points) is the team's top 3-point shooter. Ayers (11.1 points) joined Muscala, Knutson and McCollum on the all-Patriot League preseason team.
But replacing 6-foot-5 guard Bryan Cohen will be Paulsen's biggest task. Cohen was the league's defensive player of the year for three straight season and often had the task of guarding the opponent's best player — including McCollum. Cohen was adept at getting charge calls and giving the Bison a spark.
"We're trying to offset Cohen in a lot of ways," Paulsen said. But he's confident that Muscala and his fellow seniors can pick up any slack.
After Lehigh and Bucknell, American picked third in the poll of league coaches and sports information directors, while Holy Cross and Lafayette tied for fourth. Army, Colgate and Navy rounded out the poll, in that order.
But the Mountain Hawks and Bison are clearly the preseason class of the conference. It's highly unlikely two teams from the Patriot League might make the NCAAs, but anything's possible if Lehigh, Bucknell and, more importantly, the other conference teams can pull off some high-profile, nonconference upsets.
"That would be nice," McCollum said, "but if not, I'm going to make sure our team is the only one" in the NCAAs.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP