The Patriot League hasn’t won an NCAA game in six years (2006, (9) Bucknell over (8) Arkansas).
Yet, how many league tournaments in the next two weeks will feature the last two conference players of the year? The Patriot League, which tips of tonight with four games, does just that.
Two years ago, Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum won the honor as a freshman while leading the Mountain Hawks to the league’s tournament championship and NCAA bid. The 6’3” guard has only gotten better the last two years: offensive efficiency, rebounding rates, assist rate, and steals rate have all improved.
Last year, Bucknell center piece Mike Muscala took the honor as a sophomore. Muscala also built on last year’s efforts and has improved his efficiency and rebounding--nearly averaging a double double--in leading the Bison to the top of the league during the regular season (22-8, 12-2) and ready to claim their second straight Dance ticket.
A look at the four first-round matchups and predictions (note: all games played on higher seed’s home floor):
(8) Navy @ (1) Bucknell: The Midshipmen are still looking for their first league win this season. Even playing for the second time in less than a week, win #1 is not going to happen in Lewisburg, plain and simple.
(5) Lafayette @ (4) Holy Cross: The Crusaders are hot, coming in winners of six straight (including over Bucknell) to steal the four-seed. The Leopards have righted the ship after a shaky start to the season (5-10 OOC, highlighted by a win at Penn State). LU however is ranked 315 in the country in defensive efficiency. That’s not going to cut it come tournament time.
(6) Army @ (3) American: The Black Knights average the lowest points per possession in the league (0.95) while surrendering the second highest (1.07). American’s Charles Hinkle trails only McCollum in the league in scoring and at 6’5” will pose a matchup problem for Army. Army plays faster than any team in the league and will need to use that chaos to hope for an upset.
(7) Colgate @ (2) Lehigh: Colgate is the worst defensive team in the league. McCollum is the league’s leading scorer (21.7 PPG, 116.3 ORtg). That’s not a good combination for the ‘Gate. Lehigh, who opened the college basketball season with a near-upset of St. John’s, has the inside-out duo with the experienced McCollum and 6’9” Gabe Knutson to be dangerous for anyone.
A case could be made for Holy Cross as a dangerous sleep in this tournament. They’re hot. They’ve already beaten Bucknell once. They seem to finally be coming together under second year coach Milan Brown. And yet...
The Patriot League tournament feels like an appetizer before the entree of Bucknell and Lehigh, who are head and shoulders above the rest by most any metric. The two teams each won on the other’s floor in the regular season. The rubber match a week from Friday seems to be waiting to set up a grand battle of contrasts: a center-led team vs. a guard-lead team, 2010 PL Player of the Year vs. 2011 PL Player of the Year, a methodical team vs. a high-tempo team.
The winner just might get the first shot at knocking out Mizzouri in the NCAAs. Despite a low profile, either has the star necessary to create a headache for someone in the tournament.