Patriot League Preview: Expect another spirited Bucknell-Lehigh title race
Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 17 league, the Patriot League.
Lehigh's memorable victory over Duke received so much publicity last March that it's easy to forget the Mountain Hawks didn't actually win the Patriot League regular season title last year.
Bucknell edged Lehigh for the regular season crown only to have to settle for an NIT bid after falling to the Mountain Hawks in the Patriot League title game.
With Bucknell and Lehigh returning stars Mike Muscala and C.J. McCollum and much of their respective supporting casts, the Patriot League again appears likely to be a two-team race this season. American or Holy Cross could nudge their way into the race if their young players exceed expectations, but neither appear to have quite as much top-flight talent as the Bison or Mountain Hawks.
If Lehigh is a slight favorite in the league race, it's probably because of McCollum, one of the premier guards in the nation next season and a potential first-round pick in the NBA draft next June. The 6-foot-3 senior averaged 21.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists last season, earning him player of the year honors for the second time in three years.
McCollum is the face of Lehigh's program and the unquestioned team leader, but he can't be a one-man show if the Mountain Hawks are going to succeed again this season. Forwards Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner must control the boards and provide interior scoring and point guard Mackey McKnight must build on his strong play during Lehigh's postseason run last year.
Like McCollum for Lehigh, Muscala is Bucknell's superstar. The 6-foot-11 senior averaged 17.0 points and 9.1 rebounds and blocked 59 shots, earning him first-team all-league honors for the second time in his college career.
The loss of defensive stopper Bryan Cohen will hurt Bucknell, but the Bison have the rest of their core back to help Muscala. In particular, guards Cameron Ayers and Bryson Johnson give Bucknell a pair of knock-down perimeter shooters capable of making opposing defenses pay if they opt to double team Muscala.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Cameron Ayers, Bucknell
Best playmaker: Daniel Munoz, American
Best defender: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
Coach on the rise: Brett Reed, Lehigh
Coach on the hot seat: none
Three must-see games: 1. Lehigh vs. Preseason NIT, Nov. 12-23 (If the Mountain Hawks beat Robert Morris, they'll likely face Pittsburgh for a spot in the semifinals); 2. Bucknell at Purdue, Nov. 9 (Intriguing opener for the Bison); 3. Holy Cross at Boston College, Dec. 29 (Good barometer entering league play for the Crusaders)
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: Bucknell
Tourney winner last season: Lehigh
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 22nd ; 2010-11: 25th, 2009-10: 28th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2012, Lehigh as a No. 15 seed defeated Duke in the round of 64