By Scott Haynes, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: During the Patriot League Media Day many of the league's head coaches made it a point to joke about Lehigh's CJ McCollum returning to school for his senior year and how thrilled they were that he would help bring attention to their teams. Certainly some of that sentiment was real, but for the most part those coaches were extending their thanks with a bit of a sneer because they know that McCollum can single-handedly take them down in any given game, which is why the Mountain Hawks are considered the cream of the crop in the Patriot this season.
But the Mountain Hawks are more than just McCollum, as Gabe Knutson also joins his teammate on the Patriot League Preseason All-League Team. Lehigh raised more than a few eyebrows last year when it not only made the NCAA Tournament, but it dismissed mighty Duke in front of a national audience and then came close to also turning the trick against Xavier as well. Assuming that McCollum makes it through this season and doesn't need to petition the league for another year, the rest of the Patriot can start thinking about league championships beginning in 2013-14.
However, Lehigh's assumed dominance doesn't mean that teams like Bucknell and American don't believe they can't make a run at the title, because there are always bumps in every season for every team, just ask the Blue Devils and Mike Krzyzewski.
The Bison are the only other team that received any first-place votes in the preseason poll for the Patriot League, so clearly they have convinced some that they have the talent to contend. And while American refuses to be counted out, the fact that the squad is so young will certainly count against it.
The rest of the league is a mixed bag in which the final standings could go in a variety of ways, but the general consensus is that none will really pose a threat to Bucknell and Lehigh once February roles around.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Lehigh
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Lehigh; 2. Bucknell; 3. American; 4. Lafayette; 5. Holy Cross; 6. Army; 7. Colgate; 8. Navy
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
LEHIGH: Already a three-time All-Patriot League First Team selection, McCollum has a chance to become the only player in league history to make the team all four years and barring any unforeseen problems that accolade appears to be just a formality at this stage. Lehigh finished 27-8 overall last season and an impressive 11-3 in conference action, thanks in large part to having McCollum lead the team in scoring in each of those 14 league tests. The All- American guard produced 21.9 ppg last season as he started all 35 games and played more than 33 minutes per outing, but if you think that he is merely a scoring threat you'd better think again. McCollum has earned all of this high praise because he is willing to do whatever it takes to get his team into the win column and head coach Brett Reed looks like a genius when he allows his star guard to handle the action on the hardwood. Not only did McCollum lead the team in assists as well last season with 124, he was tops with a staggering 91 steals and also paced the team with 6.5 rpg, so finding a flaw in his game is tougher than trying to actually defend him. What makes Lehigh such a tough matchup is that McCollum is joined by Knutson who is a top-notch player in his own right. Knutson was responsible for 12.2 ppg and 5.6 rpg, while shooting 51.2 percent from the floor which makes him a key factor in the team's success when opponents begin to obsess about McCollum. Put those two together and they accounted for 317 of the team's 590 made free-throw last season, the team outscoring the competition by 124 points at the charity stripe where they converted 76.8 percent which was fifth-best in the nation.
BUCKNELL: Like every other coach in the Patriot League this season, Dave Paulsen will probably have his Bison hunting down Lehigh for the duration, but at least Bucknell has the luxury of having one of the top players in the league leading the pursuit. Senior forward Mike Muscala, a member of the Patriot's Preseason All-League Team, was a beast last year as he led the team in both scoring (17.0 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) as he delivered career highs in both categories. The good news for the big man and his team is that, in all three meetings against Lehigh last season he registered a double- double, so clearly he steps up his efforts when the spotlight is the brightest. Muscala let the Patriot in rebounding, both offensive and defensive a year ago, and also paced the league in blocked shots so there is little he can't do. Other key contributors for the Bison again this season should be Cameron Ayers and Joe Willman, both of whom are returning double-digit scorers who produced 11.1 and 10.7 ppg, respectively. Ayers, who was also named to the preseason all-league team, was one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the entire country a year ago when he connected on 46.8 percent of his long-distance attempts. As a team, the Bison ranked 15th in the nation in three-point shooting at 39.2 percent, so there is plenty of long-distance firepower ready to be unleashed on the competition once again. Add to that a free-throw shooting percentage of .774, which was fourth in the nation, and there are many ways in which Bucknell can take out an opponent.
AMERICAN: It wasn't that long ago that the Eagles won the Patriot League title in back-to-back seasons, but it must seem like an eternity to head coach Jeff Jones who is trying to catch up to Lehigh like the rest of the conference. Jones has the luxury of bringing back seven seniors to help build something memorable in 2012-13, but what he is short on is height right now. The roster breaks down to have just two centers, four forwards and a ridiculous 10 guards with just a total of five players standing above 6-6 for American this season. Last season, the team ranked 228th in the country in blocked shots with just 2.8 per game, so that's a number that figures to drop. However, maybe the influx of guards will give the team an edge in speed and quick hands, something the group lacked a year ago when they were 325th in the country in steals with just 4.7 per outing. Senior guard Daniel Munoz appeared in all 32 games for AU and led the league in assists with 4.2 per game, the only player to have more than 3.7 dishes per contest. Certainly many of those assists went to Charles Hinkle who led the team in scoring with 18.4 ppg, but he's no longer around and neither is Troy Brewer (11.9 ppg) which means the top returning scorer from last season is Munoz himself with 8.0 ppg. One addition to the roster this time is forward Stephen Lumpkins who returns to the program after giving professional baseball a turn last year. Lumpkins was a Second Team All-Patriot League performer two years ago when he averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest, so his presence in the paint is an added bonus for sure.
LAFAYETTE: As the winningest coach in Patriot League history, Fran O'Hanlon knows that seasons can be unpredictable, but that doesn't mean he should be under the allusion that his Leopards can actually take care of the upper- echelon programs heading into 2012-13. O'Hanlon, who has won the coach of the year award in the Patriot three times, had some trouble kicking his squad into gear last year when they put up a record of 13-18. The team did contend much better in conference play, finishing at .500 (7-7), but this particular group might not be able to even reach that level given how young they are. Lafayette has a total of just two seniors, two juniors and then a slew of underclassmen who are still finding their way around and while those breakdowns might be good for future campaigns, the here-and-now is what we are focusing on. The squad had just two double-digit scorers a year ago in Ryan Willen (14.4 ppg) and Jim Mower (12.8 ppg) and both of them are gone, which leaves sophomore guard Seth Hinrichs (8.5 ppg) as the top returning scorer. Hinrichs played just 20.3 minutes per game so his time on the floor will likely increase this year. One of two team captains, Tony Johnson (8.0 ppg) was somehow named Second Team All-Patriot last year even though he appeared in just 12 games due to injury. Only three times last season did the Leopards win consecutive games, so perhaps taking baby steps towards a three-game win streak in 2012-13 might be in order.
HOLY CROSS: The bad news for the Crusaders and head coach Milan Brown is that the team is heading into the new season without a real offensive star. Devin Brown and R.J. Evans carried quite a bit of the offensive load for the team last year when they accounted for 14.6 and 11.5 ppg, respectively, and the team generated a total of only 65.0 ppg. Looking at the glass as being half full, Holy Cross does have junior forward Dave Dudzinski slated to return and he bring his 9.4 ppg and 6.0 rpg along for the ride. One of only two players to have started all 29 games for a Holy Cross program that finished 15-14 overall and was an impressive 9-5 in league play last year, Dudzinski would be wise to focus his energies on the interior where he had the most success and not on the outside where he ended up shooting just 25.6 percent from three- point range. Even though the team shot a mildly acceptable 33.9 percent from beyond the arc, the defense at the other end for the Crusaders was all over the competition and held them to just 30.5 percent success which ranked the group 24th in the nation in that department. Justin Burrell, the only other player to have started every game brings with him minimal scoring punch (7.4 ppg) but was the one who was able to get the rest of his teammates involved in the offense with 106 assists. However, the knock on Burrell is that his field goal shooting was just atrocious last season at 30.6 percent, a level of accuracy that must improve moving forward. Phil Beans (6.3 ppg) could stand to be a little less physical, fouling out four times, and more in tune with what Burrell was doing since he logged a mere 11 assists in close to 600 minutes of action.
ARMY: Consistent play was something the Black Knights lacked last season as they delivered a 12-18 record overall and were 5-9 in league play. The team was particularly rusty on the road where they won a total of just three games, one of those coming against a Binghamton squad that was just 2-29 a year ago. Head coach Zach Spiker does have one legitimate star on his team in Ella Ellis, but beyond that the team will have to muster some considerable effort just to keep from being blown away on a regular basis. Ellis, who was named First Team All-Patriot a year ago, ranked third in the league in scoring with 17.5 ppg and was one of just two players in the Patriot to average at least 15 points, four rebounds and two assists per game. It may not sound like a lot, but in the Patriot League where defense tends to be king, putting up numbers like that on a regular basis is no easy task. Junior guard Josh Herbeck (10.3 ppg) may not have been the best field goal shooter on the team with just 39.2 percent accuracy, but somehow he lined up his shots from three-point range much better (.401) as he connected on a team-best 75 triples. As a whole the group made good on 35.5 percent out on the perimeter but more importantly, knocked down 7.9 three-pointers per game which ranked the team 34th in the country. If nothing else, the Black Knights would certainly like to make a better showing at the newly created All-Military Classic after losing to both Air Force and The Citadel right out of the gate in 2011-12.
COLGATE: Scoring points wasn't exactly a skill that Colgate demonstrated with great regularity last season, in fact the team averaged just 63.1 ppg and gave up 73.6 ppg. That 10.5 ppg negative scoring margin ranked as one of the worst in the nation last season and is something that second-year head coach Matt Langel really has to address if the Raiders are to keep from falling into the cellar in the Patriot League this year. In 2011-12, Colgate didn't have a single player average double digits in the scoring column, although coming in just under the wire was Pat Moore with his 9.9 ppg stemming from 43.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Senior Mitch Rolls produced 8.6 ppg as he shot 43.8 percent effort from behind the three-point line, which means Colgate has a pair of perimeter shooters who are capable of knocking down big baskets when given the chance. While those two handle the action on the outside, Nick Pascale (6.4 ppg) will be asked to work even harder on the inside after he led the team in rebounding with a mere 4.8 boards per outing. Even though the Raiders didn't have a singularly dominant man on the glass a year ago, the team was still only beaten by just 1.1 rebounds per game, but they won't be able to get away without hitting the glass consistently this year. Another area that has to be of concern for Colgate is on defense where the club accounted for just 3.7 steals per game to rank last among the 338 teams that the NCAA follows religiously at the Division I level.
NAVY: The United State Naval Academy does so many things well that we take for granted, but unfortunately playing basketball is not one of them. Last season, the Midshipmen offered a bit of false hope coming out of the gate when they defeated Longwood and Penn State-Altoona to begin 2-0. There was a 64-56 victory over Mount St. Mary's a few weeks later that made the program 3-4, but from there the group dropped 22 consecutive games, finishing with one of the weakest records in college basketball at 3-26. Head coach Ed DeChellis, formerly of Penn State, came up empty in all 14 conference games which means the only way to go for this team is up, supposedly. Beyond the regular starters, the Midshipmen had a huge drop-off in scoring as they generated just 57.9 ppg to rank 328th in the nation. The bad news for this year's group is that both J.J. Avila (15.9 ppg) and Jordan Sugars (11.4 ppg) have moved on, leaving Isaiah Roberts as the top returning scorer who put up 7.1 ppg a year ago. Sophomore Worth Smith (6.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg) gives the team minimal presence in the paint where he provided a team-best 22 blocked shots. Not only is Navy decades away from when David Robinson was swatting shots at a feverish rate, this group managed to average only 1.9 blocks per game last season which was 317th in the country. Unable to extend their defense out to the perimeter, the Midshipmen also had trouble defending three-point shooters who knocked down 37.5 percent of their tries.