Patriot League Tournament Preview (With Fearless Predictions)

Those papers in the trash across the room are the discarded Patriot League scripts for the 2014-15 season. With some irony, I mentioned in my preview just before conference play started that the non-conference campaign had pretty much gone according to plan.

Then the teams that I picked seventh and eighth (Bucknell and Colgate) went on to finish first and second, respectively, while the team I picked to finish first (Army) ended up dead last. Hence those scraps of paper in the garbage. I wasn’t alone, of course. Regular season champ Bucknell with picked fifth by the coaches, while Colgate with eighth (just like me). In fact, two of the top three teams in the poll (Army and Holy Cross) will be competing in play-in games Tuesday (American was the other and it finished sixth), while the actual top three (Lehigh finished third) were fifth, eighth, and seventh.

So I will try one more time to break it down for you. Maybe the Patriot League’s postseason will trend a little closer to what’s on the page. But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?

Without further ado, a look at the Patriot League Tournament (look here for official dates and times of games, with home teams hosting throughout):

Bucknell and head coach Dave Paulsen could make their third NCAA tournament in five years if they win this season. (photo courtesy: Bucknell athletics)
Bucknell and head coach Dave Paulsen could make their third NCAA tournament in five years if they win this season. (photo courtesy: Bucknell athletics)

Favorite – Bucknell: Even though the Bison have more flaws than most regular seasons, many of which were on display when I saw them against Fairfield way back in December, they lost only once in conference play at Sojka Pavilion, so they have to be given favorite status here.

As with the rest of the Patriot League season, how Bucknell got here has been far from ordinary. One of the benefits of having a guy like Dave Paulsen at the helm – who doesn’t have to worry too much about job security and paid his dues in Division III – is that he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on ideas that others just wouldn’t. To wit, with the regular season championship on the line Saturday at American, Paulsen kept leading scorer and a guy who scored 32 at possible No. 1 seed Villanova earlier in the season Chris Hass on the bench for most of the second half. Yes, he was in foul trouble, but Paulsen waited until the final minute to put him back in (he only played 11 minutes total) because, “he didn’t have a rhythm.”

And Bucknell won, of course, with freshman J.C. Show scoring 20 to lead the way. Show, Zach Thomas, center Nana Foulland, and Stephen Brown form a stellar freshman class that should mean great things for the future of the program. Thomas has alternated to scoring 20 in 28 minutes to barely even getting on the floor the next time out if it doesn’t look like he has it early. And almost every time, someone has been there to pick up the slack for another that is struggling. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Paulsen goes 10 or 11 deep even in elimination games.

Their defense was not good for much of the season, but they are now third in defensive efficiency in Patriot League play. Can the youngsters handle the pressure of their first conference tournament?

Also merits consideration – Lehigh: Like Bucknell, the Mountain Hawks are unbelievably young, but they also played very well down the stretch, including routing Bucknell at Stabler Arena. Freshman guards Austin Price and Kahron Ross are well on their way to being Patriot League stars and complement Tim Kempton very well on the offensive end. They don’t do extremely well in the paint, and will have to beat the defending champs before beating both Colgate (who handled them fairly easily Saturday) and Bucknell on the road, but their defense is tough to break down, led by Ross and Price.

“I believe that our team and our program took a step forward this season,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said. “We started league play at 1-4, but our guys continued to buy in and move forward, and fortunately for us, we’ve put ourselves in a position to host a tournament game, be in the top three in our league.”

Dark horse – Holy Cross: Many will cringe at that as the Crusaders have disappointed to an eighth-place finish this season, and are 337th nationally in eFG% defense (54.1%). But their offense has played quietly well of late with Malcolm Miller – who has scored in double figures in 12 straight games – making 12 of his last three-pointers. If they can make a few stops here and there (maybe call off the press once in a while), who knows?

Players to Watch – 3) Pee Wee Gardner, American – It’s hard to tell exactly why the Eagles haven’t been quite as effective this season, although most of it lies on the defensive end where American was 51st nationally in defensive efficiency in 2013-14, but are just 193rd this year. Gardner has been clutch late in several games or American might have needed to endure a play-in game Tuesday. The Eagles are a No. 6 seed, but Gardner is the type of player that can lead the way. Like he did last season.

2) Damon Sherman-Newsome, Colgate – Sherman-Newsome took a long road from Anchorage to Hamilton and has deferred to his teammates late in the season. But when the going gets tough, the senior is capable of hitting big shots, and it’s likely if the Raiders are going to win the Patriot for the first time since 1996, he’ll have to make some big shots.

1) Dan Trist, Lafayette – Trist has quietly (perhaps because of the Leopards’ defensive liabilities) put up some gaudy numbers this season. Trist leads the Patriot (in conference play) with 18.4 ppg, shooting 58% from the field, and is also third in rebounding. The Leopards will also likely face two road games to win the title, but they can certainly score enough to do it.

Eyepopping KenPom Numbers: 3) 14 – Adjusted tempo rank for Army at season’s end. But breaking that down is fairly amazing. The Black Knights were fourth in quickest possessions (15.3 seconds), but just 305th in defensive possessions (a slow 19.3 seconds). So, ironically like Holy Cross, their pressure just wasn’t forcing teams into anything quickly and they, more often than not, paid the price.

2) 337 – Adjusted defense rank for Lafayette. For a while, it seemed like the Leopards might improve on that, but then regression set in toward the end of the season and they are tough numbers to look at across the defensive board. However, Lafayette did hold Army to 0.94 points per possession in the season finale (just the second time in league play they held an opponent under 1 ppp), so maybe things are looking up.

1) 56.1% – Effective field goal percentage for Colgate, good for ninth nationally. The Raiders essentially stole American’s identity, slowing things down to a crawl and just shooting better than their opponents. Colgate is also seventh in three-point shooting (40.3%), and it seems like those numbers are hard to maintain, but the Raiders are no fluke, as their 12-6 Patriot record attests to.

Historical Note – In the 24-year history of Patriot League basketball, the top seed has never (yes, ever) failed to reach the conference finals. So Bucknell, even if it isn’t vintage Bucknell, has some strong history on its side in the next 10 days. The No. 1 seed has won 17 of those titles, and no seed lower than No. 2 has ever won, and may explain why the Patriot League has been to Dayton only once (in 2004, where Lehigh actually lost to Florida A&M).

Fearless Predictions – (I really have to do this?)

First Round: No. 7 Navy over No. 10 Army; No. 8 Holy Cross over No. 9 Loyola

Quarterfinals: No. 5 Boston U. over No. 4 Lafayette; No. 1 Bucknell over No. 8 Holy Cross; No. 2 Colgate over No. 7 Navy; No. 3 Lehigh over No. 6 American

Semifinals: No. 1 Bucknell over No. 5 Boston U.; No. 3 Lehigh over No. 2 Colgate

Finals: No. 3 Lehigh over No. 1 Bucknell

2 thoughts on “Patriot League Tournament Preview (With Fearless Predictions)

  1. Glad that my very favorite conference gets at least some press. Year in and year out, the Patriot league across the board has the best group of coaches in the country. Thanks for the write up.


    1. Which will be the bigger factor…Bucknell’s number 1 seed, or the Holy Cross record this year in away games? Either way, it looks good for the Bison.


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