College Basketball Preview - Patriot League

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Updated: 11/05/2013 12:45 am

Head coach Joe Jones, now in his third campaign with the Terriers, jokes that he and his players have a target squarely placed on their backs, regardless of how accommodating the Patriot League might be. Sure, it is a phrase that gets turned quite a bit in sports, but the level of talent returning for the Terriers makes it pretty accurate in this case.

In addition to Boston, the league has added another school in Loyola-Maryland, one that the Patriot hopes will uphold their rigorous expectations in the classroom as well as on the hardwood. While the Terriers are the favorite to take the crown once the regular season draws to a close in early March, the Greyhounds, with new head coach G.G. Smith, will need some more time to get acclimated to the new environment and change in rivalries which is why they are expected to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Bucknell, the reigning Patriot champs after posting a 12-2 league ledger, now has four championships which is just one behind Holy Cross for the most in league history, but the odds are against the Bison carrying that success over after losing Mike Muscala who became just the third player in league history to be chosen in the NBA Draft, although he has opted to play overseas for the time being.

Lafayette and Lehigh showed plenty of spunk last season, finishing second and third in the standings, respectively, and the Leopards figure to have enough firepower returning to make another run at the top. The same can't be said for the Mountain Hawks however, particularly since C.J. McCollum has taken his talents to the Portland Trail Blazers as the 10th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Obviously, Lehigh was able to accomplish quite a bit and make headlines with McCollum both in and out of the lineup, but to assume that the Hawks can simply plug in someone new to provide the play on the floor and the leadership off is asking way too much.

Perhaps the one surprise team this year could be the Army Black Knights, although their fourth-place finish last season was a precursor to what is possible when the squads hit the court beginning in early November.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Boston University

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Boston University, 2. Lafayette, 3. Army, 4. Bucknell, 5. Lehigh, 6. Loyola-Maryland, 7. Colgate, 8. Holy Cross, 9. American, 10. Navy

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

BOSTON UNIVERSITY: Joining a new conference is tough enough these days, but when you are instantly considered the top program the move becomes that much more difficult, hoping your players don't buy into the hype right off the bat. Coach Jones has his work cut out for him in so many different ways, not the least of which is trying to get star guard D.J. Irving off on the right foot. Named the Preseason Patriot League Player of the Year, Irving is coming off a campaign in which he played close to 35 minutes per game and led the unit in scoring with better than 14 points per outing. A mediocre shooter from the floor (.392), Irving was also second on the team with 108 assists and 43 steals, which means he had the ball in his hands quite a bit. While Irving focused his efforts on offense out on the perimeter Dom Morris, an All-America East Third Team selection a year ago, was and is the spark the Terriers need on the inside where he paced the group with 6.4 rpg and shot 57.4 percent from the floor. Morris also matched Maurice Watson in scoring with 11.2 ppg, but while the former was performing mostly in close to the basket, the latter was making sure that he was getting his teammates involved to the tune of 162 assists. One aspect the team would like to carry over is its ability to pile up the points from 3-point range as they knocked down eight triples per game to rank 24th in the country. But at the same time, coach Jones has to build up the squad's toughness in the paint after logging just 1.8 blocked shots per contest, ranking them 328th.

LAFAYETTE: It may not sound like a significant number, but even by outscoring the opposition by 0.1 ppg a season ago, the Leopards were still in the middle of the pack in the Patriot and that was good enough to help propel the team to a second-place finish. As the dean of head coaches in the league, Fran O'Hanlon has seen it all as he enters his 19th campaign with the program, but even so, finding a replacement for all-league performer Tony Johnson will not be easy. It is one thing to be the eighth-leading scorer in the Patriot with 13.3 ppg, it is another to be a point guard who is directly responsible for controlling the flow of the action. Johnson was third in the league in assists with close to five per game which is an aspect of the game that isn't easily replicated when new players step into the void. A 19-15 team in 2012-13, the Leopards still have a strong cast of characters even with the departure of Johnson, as Seth Hinrichs shoots to make the All-Patriot First Team after falling just short last season while placing fifth in the league with 14.5 ppg. Seen as possibly both a blessing and a curse, almost half of all 159 made field goals by Hinrichs were drained from 3-point range, an effort that might be hard to duplicate if he is asked to make more of an impact on the inside more. Third on the team in scoring with 12.4 ppg, Dan Trist was also third in the Patriot with 53.2 percent accuracy from the floor, and when you add Joey Ptasinski (9.6 ppg) and Bryce Scott (8.2 ppg) to the mix, you come up with a potent offensive squad.

ARMY: It had been a long time since the Black Knights had been relevant in the Patriot League, but in 2012-13 the Academy raised the bar a bit and finished with a winning record (16-15) for the first time in a generation. The team took advantage of a weak non-conference schedule, but still only garnered eight wins in 17 opportunities, yet head coach Zach Spiker could see the progress his squad was making and expects to go beyond those heights when the team takes the floor this season. However, the Knights have to first find a way to not let the loss of Ella Ellis, an all-conference performer who was a 1,500-point scorer, get in the way of their development. Coach Spiker cautions that his team is younger than most people might realize, which might be another way for him to lift some of the burden off Patriot League Rookie of the Year Kyle Wilson, the first for the program in two decades. A member of the all-rookie team, Wilson was the team's second-leading scorer with 13.0 ppg and was even better when it came to league outings, but that just means the rest of the Patriot is well aware of his capabilities. Wilson will continue to learn much from point guard Dylan Cox who was the only player to start every game last season and used the time to lead Army in both assists (100) and rebounding (5.0 rpg). However, even with youth and energy being served in the backcourt, the Knights still can work on their defense after averaging just 5.2 steals per game a year ago, ranking 308th in the country.

BUCKNELL: Priding themselves on a tenacious defense that led the Patriot a year ago with just 57.8 ppg allowed, ranking them 14th in the nation as well, the Bison have a lofty standard to live up to yet again. Head coach Dave Paulsen, in his sixth season with Bucknell and 20th overall, has built a strong legacy already with this program, having won three consecutive outright regular-season titles and making two trips to the NCAA Tournament, but it won't be nearly as easy this time around for his team to come close to those expectations. The Bison have lost one of the top players in program history in Muscala, not to mention key performers in Joe Willman and Bryson Johnson, and those gaps in the lineup will be very difficult to fill no matter how good of a coach Paulsen might be. However, the squad does bring back senior guard Cameron Ayers who is a preseason All-Patriot selection after putting up 12.4 ppg and clearing 4.0 rpg a season ago. But you have to wonder how he will respond when the spotlight is clearly shining on him and he is no longer flying under the radar. The Bison don't have any other returning player who averaged more than three points per game, meaning the group of Ryan Frazier, Steven Kaspar and Ryan Hill will be challenged to find outlets who can produce at the offensive end of the floor. Hopefully, the defense can come up big for Bucknell once more in order to keep the club relevant.

LEHIGH: He may not have been much of a contributor on the floor all of last season, but there's no denying that head coach Brett Reed will have difficulty moving forward after the loss of McCollum, one of the most decorated Patriot League players ever. The Mountain Hawks finished in a tie for second in the league standings last season (10-4) because of Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner, and now they too have departed so the cupboard, while not completely bare, does have plenty of space for new pieces. Senior guard Mackey McKnight, the top returning scorer for Lehigh after putting up 11.9 ppg, will become the focal point of the Hawks. The league leader in assists with close to five per game, McKnight is a preseason All-Patriot pick for good reason. Now he just needs to justify the selection by kicking his teammates into gear and ensuring their success at the offensive end of the floor. Anthony D'Orazio (6.4 ppg), Stefan Cvrklaj (4.7 ppg) and Corey Schaefer (4.6 ppg) will be out on the floor extending defenses with their perimeter shooting, while Justin Goldsborough and Conroy Baltimore try to give the group some punch in the paint while they figure out what to do with six freshmen and the return of Jesse Chuku who is joining the squad after sitting out last season.

LOYOLA-MARYLAND: Head coach G.G. Smith is finally getting his feet wet when it comes to being the leader of a college program, and the Greyhounds hope he has the potential to become even a fraction of what his father has been (Tubby) over the years at the Division I level. But make no mistake, this Smith has his hands full as he tries to not only take over a program for which he was an assistant for several years, but do so as they transition to a new league after bolting from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. First and foremost, Smith has to find a way to move beyond having three of the top four scorers for the Greyhounds leave, with the fewest bumps in the road. The team had great success in 2012-13 in the MAAC with a second-place finish and an overall mark of 23-12, but don't expect the group to come anywhere close to those numbers during this rebuilding time, particularly when the squad has non- conference outings against UConn, West Virginia and Miami, all of which can demoralize a smaller program such as Loyola. Still, coach Smith does return top scorer Dylon Cormier who was responsible for 16.4 ppg and also accounted for 4.6 rpg and enters this season as the top overall point producer in the Patriot with his 1,213 career points, although that's a bit misleading given the team's transition from the MAAC. The team is expecting big things from RJ Williams (4.9 ppg, 4.0 apg) as well after he appeared in just 17 games a season ago. One of the areas that the team needs to work on is its productivity from behind the 3-point line where it ranked 328th in the country with just 4.2 triples per game.

COLGATE: Hard to believe, but with a record of 11-21 last season, the Raiders actually had their best run in three years. Head coach Matt Langel has taken it on the chin during his time at Colgate, but you have to hand it to him and his staff for continuing to encourage the players to put forth their best efforts when they hit the hardwood. Like most teams in the Patriot, Colgate has lost quite a number of key contributors from last season, but at least the Raiders retain the services of Murphy Burnatowski who was one of the top scorers in the league in 2012-13. Now a senior, the forward accounted for a hefty 17.4 ppg and was also responsible for 5.1 rpg as he earned All-Patriot League recognition. Because of Burnatowski, the Raiders were decent at the offensive end with 63.5 ppg, but with a scoring margin of minus-6.2 ppg (300th nationally), there is still much to be worked on. Pat Moore (9.8 ppg) and Luke Roh (4.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.5 apg) will bring a good amount of support, particularly the latter who finished in the top six in the league in both rebounding and handing out assists which is an unusual combination. One area that coach Langel needs to get more production is at the defensive end of the floor where the Raiders, despite their name, averaged just 4.6 steals per game a season ago, ranking them 333rd in the nation. Because of that number, the squad's turnover margin was minus-3.1 per game (320th in the country).

HOLY CROSS: For the first time since 2010, the Crusaders finished below .500 in Patriot League play last season, winning just four of 14 outings, which means head coach Milan Brown has to build his players back up and make them believe they can be more relevant in the league moving forward. As one of the top returning players in the Patriot, Dave Dudzinski will be responsible for kicking his teammates into gear and setting the tone at both ends of the floor. Offensively, few players in the league rival the forward who posted 15.2 ppg a season ago, his 6.6 rpg also making him the top performer in that category making a return engagement. In addition to Dudzinski, the Crusaders also have the luxury of leaning on Justin Burrell, the Patriot League Rookie of the Year, as he posted 12.1 ppg and handed out 3.7 apg, but the squad will need significant contributions from Cullen Hamilton (6.3 ppg) and Malcolm Miller (5.7 ppg) as well in order to survive. The Patriot League schedule is tough enough every year for most teams, but the Crusaders don't do themselves any favors early on with their non-conference slate as they tip off against Harvard and then face both North Carolina and Michigan on the road, not to mention Belmont squeezed in between for good measure. Hopefully the outcomes from those contests will not demoralize Holy Cross to the point where it has a tougher time getting up for the league opener versus Boston University on the road in early January.

AMERICAN: Jeff Jones didn't wait long after the Eagles finished with a dismal 10-20 record to find a new home, as the coach headed to Old Dominion instead of sticking around for another attempt at a rebuilding campaign at American. With Jones gone, Mike Brennan gets his first crack at being a head coach at the Division I level, and right away he'll have to get everyone on the same page before playing just three non-conference home games and taking on the likes of Ohio State, George Mason and Saint Mary's on the road. Brennan's first order of business is to identify key offensive players that can fill the void left by Stephen Lumpkins (14.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and Daniel Munoz (10.3 ppg, 3.6 apg), as there are no returning players who averaged double-digit points a season ago for the Eagles. When you consider American was already one of the lowest-scoring teams in the nation in 2012-13, putting up just 57.8 ppg to rank 335th, the road is expected to be long and hard for coach Brennan and his crew. John Schoof (9.6 ppg, 2.5 apg) and Tony Wroblicky (7.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) are the best offensive options for the Eagles since there are no other players who averaged more than four points per game a season ago. Not only do the Eagles have to boost their scoring output, their defense also needs a major upgrade as well, after ranking last in the nation in steals with a mere 3.4 per game, not to mention coming in last in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to knock down 41.1 percent of their long-range attempts.

NAVY: The Midshipmen have been playing basketball since 1908 and have produced a winning percentage of .575 over the course of nearly 2,300 games, but the program has had just two winning seasons since 2002 and the last two campaigns have been particularly cruel for head coach Ed DeChellis who, after having a moderately successful run at Penn State, opted to take on the challenge of Patriot League basketball in Annapolis. DeChellis did see some growth from a team that finished with a grand total of just three victories in 2011-12, but still an 8-23 mark overall and a 2-12 league ledger is nothing to write home about. Unfortunately, recruiting basketball players at service academies is a difficult proposition, so there is only so much DeChellis can do with the cards he's dealt. This year, Navy has but two seniors on the roster in James Loupos and Thurgood Wynn, and while the rest of the team is made up of youngsters, the coach thinks he is definitely heading in the right direction, albeit with more growing pains to come. Worth Smith (10.2 ppg), Brandon Venturini (8.8 ppg) and Tilman Dunbar (9.5 ppg, 4.9 apg) give the Midshipmen their best shot at success, but they all know that failure to advance significantly beyond their 55.1 ppg a season ago (340th nationally) will prevent them from posing a threat to most opponents on the schedule this season.

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