No C.J. McCollum, No Problem as Lehigh edges American

If there was ever a time for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks to have an off-night, Wednesday night in Washington D.C. presented a perfect opportunity. C.J. McCollum was back on campus rehabbing his broken foot. Preseason All-Patriot League selection Gabe Knutson sat on the bench midway through the first half saddled with two fouls. The American Eagles drained five of their first nine shots – with four of them from behind the arc – to race out to a 21-9 advantage. With the Mountain Hawks back on their heels, the energized home court could practically smell the upset.

It would have been an ideal time for Dr. Brett Reed’s undermanned team to call it a night. But Holden Greiner and the defense simply wouldn’t allow for that to happen.

The 6’8″ senior played the game of his life, scoring 18 of his 22 points (on 10 of 13 shooting) in the first half to will his Mountain Hawks back into the game. Greiner’s energy, versatility, and ability to score from anywhere on the floor sparked a 22-7 run to close out the first half. The comeback gave Lehigh a lead that frankly didn’t seem possible only ten minutes prior.

“I thought Holden’s offensive attack and energy was a big catalyst for our run to get us back into the game,” said Reed. “He played with a great deal of confidence tonight. He had an aggressive attack mentality and he’s multi-faceted with his skill level. He can step out and shoot the ball. He drives the basketball effectively to finish. He also has very good vision, so he’s great for other people as help comes. Because of that combination, it makes him a difficult cover.”

The Mountain Hawks slowly extended their lead to a game high 12 points, 55-43, midway through the second half. This time, it was the defense that stymied the Eagles. Lehigh forced 15 turnovers in the game, leading to 14 points. American head coach Jeff Jones, while satisfied with his team’s overall effort in their second Patriot League game of the season, wasn’t pleased with their offensive execution, especially in the second half.

“Lehigh is a very good defensive team, but a majority of our turnovers were us not being strong with the ball and us making some poor decisions,” said the veteran coach. “That kind of self-inflicted damage in a close game makes it tough to win against a quality opponent in Lehigh.”

American, sparked by their crowd and their distinct interior advantage with big men Stephen Lumpkins and Tony Wroblicky, still wouldn’t go down without a fight. When senior Blake Jolivette knifed his way through the lane for a lay-up, Lehigh’s once dominant lead was cut to three points late. But then three straight turnovers on the ensuing three possessions ensured the Mountain Hawks would never relinquish their lead for the rest of the night. It all came back to defense.

“Our defense was key for our victory tonight,” said Reed. “I think American played very well in the beginning of the game. They made shots, they made the right plays at the right time, which allowed them to be efficient. And because they played so well, I think we went back on our heels just a little bit. However, I do give our guys and great deal of credit for ultimately finding their resolve, correcting what was going on out there, and then imposing their will into the game which led to the major turnaround we had in the first half.”

After allowing the Eagles to race out to the early lead, Lehigh held American to 18 of 45 shooting (40.0%). The Mountain Hawks sealed up the perimeter and showed why they’re holding opponents to 29.4% from three-point land this season. In addition, Lehigh made sure Lumpkins worked extremely hard for every point. Despite scoring 10 points and corralling 17 rebounds, the senior was consistently double teamed – even tripled teamed at times – once he touched the ball in the low post. As a result, Lumpkins’ 10 points were scored on as many shots. It was clearly a focus of Lehigh’s game plan.

“It’s not an easy thing to neutralize American’s big men,” said Reed. “Stephen Lumpkins is an excellent low post player. It took a total team effort to try to neutralize him as much as we could.”

Reed then added, “They have a strength, it’s not necessary been our strength, however we were able to survive especially with the right dynamics of trying to put the right people in right spots, and our guys bought in trying to make that happen.”

In all, nine Mountain Hawks scored in their hard fought 63-57 victory at American. While Greiner was an absolute nightmare for the Eagles in the first half, Lehigh was led by a bevy of players – most notably Mackey McKnight with his 11 points, six rebounds, five assists, and four steals – in the second half.

It was a collective team effort and illustrated why Lehigh knocked off Duke in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament. C.J. McCollum may be the star, but with an excellent supporting cast of Greiner, McKnight, and Gabe Knutson (who had an off-night with only two points, three rebounds, three turnovers, and four personal fouls) around the future NBA pro, it’s reasonable to suggest that Lehigh could make it back to the NCAA tournament, even if McCollum doesn’t return from his broken foot until early to mid March.

In the meantime, Dr. Reed has been pleased with his team’s fight, character, and unselfishness since McCollum’s injury. On any given night, a number of players could step up. It’s an approach that will be instrumental to their future success.

Said Reed, “I think we have a number of players who could fulfill that role of a go-to-guy, however we have a number of players who are unselfish enough to be able to play off of each other.”

Lehigh heads home for a Saturday showdown with Colgate, before traveling to Bucknell for a much anticipated matchup with Mike Muscala and the Bison next Wednesday night. American will make the trek north to take on Holy Cross, before returning home next Wednesday to square off against Navy.

Ryan Peters covers mid-major college basketball for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

Surprise individual performances of the young season

With most teams having played at least one quarter of their schedule (crazy, huh?), I felt this was a perfect time to give you ten players that have really surprised and/or impressed me this season. In the first part, John and I list our top five surprises of the NEC thus far, who we feel truly have the potential to end up on an all-conference team in March. For part two, I decided to give you the five best non-conference players I’ve seen live so far in the 13 games I’ve attended. Enjoy!

Rashad Whack, Mount St. Mary’s – Everybody knew about Whack’s ability to knock down the long-range jumper, but not everyone could have envisioned Whack being the key ingredient in Jamion Christian’s MAYHEM attack. Through seven games, the George Mason transfer not only leads the team in three-pointers made and points per game, but he also is tops in rebounds and steals (6.4% steal rate, best in the NEC) as well. His off-the-ball skills and play have been pleasant surprises and for that credit must be given to the coach Christian replaced, Robert Burke. Christian inherited quite a player in Whack, who absolutely has the potential to crack a NEC all-conference team.

Stephon Mosley, St. Francis (PA) – Go ahead, it’s OK. You can admit this is the first time you’ve ever heard of Stephon Mosley. Admittedly, I knew little about the freshman, as he was a late signee for Rob Krimmel’s team. But shockingly in the early going, Mosley is leading all NEC freshmen in efficiency rating, rebounds and minutes per game. The 6’6″ power forward, along with notable recruit Ronnie Drinnon, have spearheaded the youth movement in Loretto, as Krimmel has clearly moved forward with his young players, rather than utilizing veterans like Anthony Ervin, Tony Peters, and Storm Stanley. If Mosley continues his 10 points and 4.5 rebounds per game production, he’ll easily crack the NEC All-Rookie Team at season’s end.

Matthew Hunter, Central Connecticut – The immediate impact this accomplished junior college transfer could provide was well-known, thanks to Howie Dickenman’s constant praise in the preseason. We knew Hunter would be a stat-filler, but we didn’t realize that he’d be in the top four of the conference in points, rebounds, and steals per game. Hunter showcased his skills in Indiana recently, when he famously dropped 40 points in a losing effort at Assembly Hall. It was a performance that surely opened coach’s eyes, and shows that merely shutting down Kyle Vinales will not restrict the Blue Devils efficient offense. There’s officially a bona fide one-two punch in New Britain, so sit back and enjoy the ride for the next two seasons. Vinales and Hunter will put up some mind-blowing numbers together.

Kevin Douglas, St. Francis Brooklyn – Last season Douglas was on the bench behind Stefan Perunicic for SFC. Now that he’s in the rotation on a consistent basis, Douglas is tearing it up. He’s already attempted more threes this season than he did during his entire freshman campaign and he’s making a ridiculous 41% of them. That’s not sustainable, but the sophomore’s low turnover rate and ability to attack the rim look like they weren’t flukes last season. The two biggest criticisms of Douglas thus far this season is that he could be shooting even more and that his defense is a work in progress. Still, he’s provided an excellent scoring threat on the wing for the Terriers.

Dyami Starks, Bryant – In the preseason, Bryant head coach Tim O’Shea was so high on Starks, he called him one of the best shooters he has ever coached. So far, Starks hasn’t disappointed, hitting 27 three-pointers (37% three-point percentage) and dropping double-digit points in seven of nine games. Starks ability to make the long-range jumper has added a much-needed dimension to the Bulldogs’ offense, so much so that Bryant can no longer be considered a pushover. We’re incredibly bullish on Starks to continue his impressive production, mainly because O’Shea has been blown away with Columbia transfer’s work ethic. Enjoy Bulldog fans, since you have the next three years to witness the soon to be best shooter in Bryant’s young history.

And now for some players that really impressed me in the live games I’ve seen so far this season…

C.J. McCollum, Lehigh – Well, duh?! It’s not terribly imaginative for me to put a potential likely All-American here, but his insertion onto my list is due to the “wow” factor. When I saw Lehigh smoke Sacred Heart on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it wasn’t that McCollum scored 26 super efficient points. It was the way he scored, which was seemed so easy, so effortless. He scored in the post, in the lane, behind the arc, and yet he hardly broke a sweat doing it. He was by far and away the best player on that court and this is coming from an unapologetic supporter of Shane Gibson. As Patriot League expert Kevin Doyle said at the game, a player of McCollum’s caliber belongs in the Big East, not in the outdated Pitt Center whipping up on the hapless Pioneers. As far as mid-major players are concerned, he is the most transcendent talent I have ever witnessed.

Tilman Dunbar, Navy – You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why Navy has already doubled their win total from a season ago. It’s the lightning quick, surprisingly mature freshman Tilman Dunbar who has helped lead the Midshipmen out of a couple of abysmal seasons into a team that could legitimately finish the upper half of the Patriot League. Dunbar possesses a terrific handle, an explosive first step, and adept court vision, yet it’s his poise that may be his most impressive talent. The diminutive point guard carries himself like an upperclassman. Dunbar’s undeniable talent will be fun to watch for Midshipmen fans the next four seasons, but in the meantime, he’ll continue to only improve under the tutelage of head coach Ed DeChellis. You can basically hand him the Patriot League Rookie of the Year trophy right now.

Ryan Cook, UMBC – I didn’t see UMBC play last season (which probably was a good thing), but a number of articles raved about the play of forward Chase Plummer. So you could imagine my surprise when I saw it was guard Ryan Cook, and not Plummer, that made the Retrievers tick. Not to pick on Plummer, but Cook – a former walk-on – has easily been the most efficient player for Aki Thomas’ UMBC club in the early going. The athletic Cook is a do all guard who can score a variety of ways. In addition to leading the America East in scoring, the 6’2 senior is eighth in the conference in rebounds per game. Forecasting ahead, expect Cook to continue to have an expanded role in the Retrievers’ offense. It’s probably the most optimal way UMBC can claw back to respectability in the America East this season.

Stephen Lumpkins, American – You won’t find American upperclassman Steve Lumpkins on any stat sheets last season, because he was playing minor league baseball. After the failed stint, Lumpkins came back to utilize his final season of eligibility, and it’s a good thing for the Eagles he did. Without his fantastic interior production, American would really struggle this season. It’s been a disappointing start to the season already in Washington D.C., yet Lumpkins at least gives the Eagles a little hope heading into conference play. His efficient, fluid play around the rim demands double teams and should leave American’s bevy of long-range shooters open on the outside. So far, Lumpkins is holding up his end of the bargain, as he’s averaging 15.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. That’s not too shabby for someone who completely missed the previous season.

Billy Baron, Canisius – When Canisius hired the former long time URI coach Jim Baron this offseason, they were essentially adding a top-notch transfer as well, in the form of Baron’s son, Billy. As a result, the Golden Griffens have exceeded expectations in the early going and have finally caught MAAC fans attention with their quick 2-0 start in the conference. Baron – the young one – is a huge reason for Canisius’ success, having posted averages of 17.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. He’s fresh off a MAAC Player of the Week award, after torching conference foe Marist with a fantastic effort. Throw in backcourt mate Harold Washington, and you have a dynamic scoring duo that can seemingly make the right decision time and time again for a contending club in Canisius.

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball for Big Apple Buckets and Pioneer Pride. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride