(SportsNetwork.com) - The first conference tournament of 2014 is upon us, as the Patriot League aims to decide which one of its member schools deserves to play in the NCAA Tournament.
A league that typically flies under the radar, the Patriot did draw some attention in recent years thanks to the efforts of Lehigh's C.J. McCollum who was taken with the 10th pick in the last NBA Draft by Portland, but still the conference has to fight for attention more often than not.
There were a few changes made to the Patriot landscape this season, as Boston University and Loyola-Maryland joined the fray after coming over from the America East and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conferences, respectively. Expected to be the top performer in 2013-14, the Terriers did not disappoint as they finished as the top seed heading into the tournament, sporting a record of 22-9 overall and 15-3 in conference.
Maurice Watson Jr. is a big reason for the success of Boston and head coach Joe Jones this season, as the sophomore leads his team in both scoring (13.4 ppg) and assists (206), not to mention posting 65 steals for a program that averaged almost seven thefts per outing.
The top six teams in the standings earn a bye through to the quarterfinals on March 5, which means Boston is waiting to see whether it will host Lafayette or aforementioned Loyola on Wednesday night.
The Leopards (10-19, 6-12) were brutal during the first few months of the season, winning just four times prior to the start of February, but last month the squad found a spark and ran off six wins in seven outings during one stretch, with the lone setback being a lopsided 88-54 trip to Boston on Feb. 8. In conference play, Lafayette has produced 69.4 ppg, thanks to the efforts of Dan Trist (13.8 ppg) and a fantastic 40.5 percent shooting behind the arc for the entire program.
Should the Greyhounds (11-18, 6-12) be the ones moving on, they will be doing so without one of the most dynamic scorers in the league. Early last month, Dylan Cormier (21.2 ppg) went out following left hand surgery, taking a huge piece of the Loyola offense with him. With Cormier out of the picture, the Greyhounds don't have a single active player scoring in double figures and that's just not the way to put together a team that possibly could score an upset win this week. R.J. Williams is responsible for 8.3 ppg and Eric Laster 8.2 rpg on the campaign.
The other first-round matchup being played on Monday finds 10th-seeded Navy (9-20, 4-14) pitted against seventh-seeded Colgate (12-17, 6-12) at Cotterell Court. The Midshipmen have won this event a total of three times previously, but you have to go back to 1998 to find the last time they wore the crown. Navy closed out the regular season on a four-game slide, so momentum is definitely on the side of the Academy. On a more positive note, the team did have twice as many conference wins this season (four) as it did in 2012-13, but with just 40.3 percent shooting from the field and 61.0 ppg, the squad is not scaring too many foes.
The Raiders, who split the two regular-season meetings with Navy, did close out with three straight victories, but there is only so much that this team can accomplish given the current cast of characters on the roster. Murphy Burnatowski paces the program with 14.5 ppg and Austin Tillotson accounts for 13.5 ppg, thanks to 50.7 percent shooting beyond the arc, while handing out a team-best 126 assists in his 28 starts.
Unfortunately for Colgate, recent history has not been kind to the program when it comes to this event, having appeared in the title game just once since taking the second of back-to-back championships in 1996. .
The survivor of the Navy/Colgate clash will be asked to turn right around and head to American and face off against the Eagles in the quarterfinals. Second- seeded American (17-12, 13-5) wasn't challenged much outside of conference play this season and even the games the Eagles lost were against mediocre competition (Mount St. Mary's, Brown, Columbia), so the expectations for the program might not be that great at the moment.
Working in favor of the Eagles is a defense that has been the toughest of any team in the Patriot this season, limiting foes to only 60.1 ppg. The offense is next-to-last with a mere 64.7 ppg, but still American has the best scoring margin (plus-4.5 ppg) of any squad in the League. Just a sophomore, Jesse Reed accounts for 14.2 ppg, followed by Tony Wroblicky with 12.2 ppg and 7.3 rpg.
Perhaps the most interesting matchup in the quarterfinals finds fifth-seeded Army paying a visit to fourth-seeded Bucknell. The Black Knights (14-15, 10-8) have never been a factor in this event, sporting a record of just 6-23 in the tournament over the years. Army is the only program outside of the two new additions never to have claimed the title.
The Knights are coming off a season-ending 87-84 win against Lafayette on Saturday, snapping a two-game slide versus American and Boston, but against those two squads, Army lost by a combined five points. Kyle Wilson gives the Academy hope as he leads the league in scoring with 18.2 ppg, shooting a sensational 43.8 percent behind the 3-point line, but after that the offensive options are rather average.
The Bison (16-13, 11-7) may have been the team that the rest of the League had been writing off just a few weeks ago, but the squad finished strong with six consecutive wins, beating both the Eagles and Terriers during the stretch. The defending tournament champion, Bucknell is driven by Cameron Ayers (15.5 ppg) and Chris Hass (10.9 ppg) who have combined to knock down 104 triples. Second in the Patriot in points allowed (63.8 ppg), Bucknell has made it to the title game in each of the previous three years, has won four championships overall, and is 32-19 in the event all-time.
Squaring off at the Hart Center on Wednesday night, sixth-seeded Lehigh takes on third-seeded Holy Cross in the final quarterfinals event. After losing so much talent from last season, the Mountain Hawks (14-17, 7-11) were bound to fall back a bit this year, but still opponents could not take them lightly. However, dropping three straight and five of the last six regular-season bouts means Lehigh is not exactly coming into this event with a positive mindset.
Lehigh, which lost both meetings to Holy Cross (18-12, 12-6) this season, relied quite a bit on Mackey McKnight who did all he could to keep the Mountain Hawks flying right with his 13.3 ppg and 189 assists over 31 appearances, but the support from his teammates just wasn't enough, at least beyond Tim Kempton (13.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg).
Holy Cross has not dropped back-to-back decisions since opening league play against Boston and American two months ago, which means the Crusaders have been one of the more durable and consistent programs in the Patriot for the last several weeks, although they did falter in the regular-season finale on Saturday versus the Terriers (68-64) at home. Aside from the fact that he has three times as many turnovers (57) as he does assists (19), Dave Dudzinski is still one of the top performers this year with 15.3 ppg and 7.5 rpg. Because of the efforts of Dudzinski, Holy Cross was second in the League in rebounding margin (plus-2.0 rpg).