As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast.
The Patriot League looked like it was headed to having two teams with NCAA chances last season, and then CJ McCollum's foot decided otherwise. Such is life.
The remainder of the Lehigh squad put up a grand fight against Bucknell and probably the best player to ever come out of the league, while holding off Lafayette. But Mike Muscala was not to be denied while putting up one of the dream seasons in college basketball, no matter what level.
Now the league is without its two stars from last season, and Army's Ella Ellis, and well, without a really dominant squad, meaning this could be anyone's league this season. Well, almost anyone, but at least half the league could lay claim to a chance at the title if the cards fall right. And it might just be the newcomer Boston University that walks away from it all on top. But there might be one surprise squad that has something to say about that.
Last Year: 16-15 (8-6). 4th in the Patriot League
Army has never won the Patriot League; it has never gone to the NCAA Tournament; it hasn't played in the postseason since 1977-78. I was one year old at the time, and here I am 36 years later thinking they have a chance to take their conference. Call me crazy, old and maybe losing my mind a little bit. The truth is that the young team under the tutelage of Zack Spiker has as good a chance as anyone to come on and make a statement this season, despite the loss of top scorer Ella Ellis. The young core of Kyle Wilson (last season's Patriot League Newcomer of the Year), Dylan Cox and Larry Toomey form a formidable group. The real X-Factor is whether this is a young team that will blossom in its second season together. They surely impressed behind the senior leadership of Ellis, but that elder statesman role is basically vacant this season. Josh Herbeck is the only senior who played real minutes left on the team. To truly compete, the defensive side of the ball is going to have to catch up with the offense (which is there), and Army will need to find some way to counteract what will likely be a size disadvantage in almost every game. Only Toomey was a real force on the boards with a 17.1 percent defensive rebound percentage, so someone will need to step up to make this bold prediction real.
2. Boston University Terriers
Last Season: 17-13 (11-5), 3rd in the America East, Lost to Loyola (MD) in CIT 1st Round
Departures: Zach Chionuma (1.5 ppg)
Key Returners: Maurice Watson (11.2 ppg, 5.4 apg), DJ Irving (14.2 ppg), Dom Morris (11.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Malik Thomas (7.3 ppg).
It took every ounce of my strength not to pick Boston University to win this league. That the only player gone who played anything like a "significant" number of minutes -- and there is a big reach on significant -- averaged 1.5 points per game says something about the strength of the returning team. They are led by maybe the most explosive point guard in the America East last season, and he is only going to be a sophomore . We spoke in the past how defense is really the measure of freshman success, and most newcomers don't have the scoring chops to get a lot of looks just yet. Maurice Watson has the quick hands with 51 steals last year, and put up a respectable 5.2 DEF100 last year. He will be buoyed by the senior scoring of DJ Irving and Dom Morris, along with Malik Thomas for strength on the wing. As Ryan Peters pointed out over at NYCBuckets, the Terriers could well land three players in the top 10 by season's end. And the addition of freshman Dylan Haines (7-0, 228) in the paint should just add to the dominance. So yeah, this would have been the safe pick in the league, and yet I went somewhere different. These things happen.
3. Colgate Raiders
Last Season: 11-21 (5-9), 5th in Patriot League
Departures: Brandon Jones (8.1 ppg), Mitch Rolls (7.2 ppg), John Brandenburg (5.1 ppg)
Yes, I like to go out on a limb when it comes to predictions, so here is another. Colgate could win this thing. Just today, I was having the conversation about why this is true, despite losing Brandon James. Reason number one should be Murphy Burnatowski, who gives Colgate a huge offensive presence and also blocked 25 shots last season as a wing man who plays a lot bigger than his 6-7 frame. What might be more impressive are the 6.6 rebounds that Luke Roh grabbed as a guard last year, while also adding 27 steals, 12 blocks, and a nearly 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Valuable? You bet. The Raiders add two raw big men who are going to be projects for different reasons: The 6-11 Wyatt Haggerty just had a massive growth spurt and is still learning to play with his new-found size, while west coast transplant John Fenton only recently added the muscle that should allow him to bang in the middle. The two should be targeted by opponents, but could form a formidable size components for the next several years in this league.
Last Season: 19-15 (10-4), Tied 2nd in Patriot League
Departures: Tony Johnson (13.3 ppg, 5.5 apg), Levi Giese (6.9 pp, 62 blocks)
It would be tempting to put Lafayette higher after last season's run that saw the team go 12-4 to end the regular season. They then made the championship game against Bucknell and almost took down Moose and the Bison. This team should be good, except for all its losses. Tony Johnson is no longer leading this offense, and the question is really who will take his place. It may be that the team doesn't need a true point guard, given that three players returning had 57 or more assists last year. But few teams can operate in that mode for an entire season. That said, Seth Hinrichs should lead this team back to the top echelon in the league, and if they can score a couple of upsets against the three teams named ahead of them here, they can repeat the magic of last year, and possibly take it one step further. Hinrichs and Joey Ptasinski will need to repeat their efficient scoring efforts to have any hope of that.
Last Season: 21-10 (10-4), Tied 2nd in Patriot League, Lost to Wyoming in 1st round of CBI.
Key Returners: Mackey McKnight (11.9 ppg, 3 apg), Anthony D'Orazio (6.4 ppg).
This is probably a gift placement for Lehigh, given that they lost almost everything that made them so good last year. Back will be Mackey McKnight, who stepped up in the absence of C.J. McCollum to help lead this team. He wasn't the playmaker that McCollum was, but that would be an unfair comparison for the rising senior. But watching the flashy McCollum handle the ball, and then watching McKnight, it was a totally different game. Lehigh also lost Holden Greiner and Gabe Knutson, who helped them hang with Mike Muscala and Bucknell. That was a strength in the middle that is just gone now. So is No. 5 too high in this league? Maybe, but the truth is that McKnight could make up for that and really take on the role he attempted to play last season. He could be the true leader on the floor, and given the comparison to what everyone else below the Mountain Hawks bring back, I will put my money here for the team that will be best of the rest.
6. Loyola (MD) Greyhounds
Last Season: 23-12 (12-6), 2nd in MAAC, Lost to East Carolina in quarterfinals of CIT.
Key Returners: Dylon Cormier (16.4 ppg), RJ Williams (4.9 ppg).
Loyola is the other newcomer into the league, but this is a team in a bigger transition than just the name on the floor. The Greyhounds lost their best player in Erik Etherly to graduation, and then coach Jimmy Patsos bolted for former conference mate Siena, taking with him some of Loyola's recruits for the coming season. It won't be easy to replace either the coach or the player, but Loyola still has Dylon Cormier in the backcourt. Cormier could have the inside track to conference player of the year after being one of the best in the MAAC last year, arguably a better league that the top-heavy Patriot. If Cormier could become a little more efficient with his scoring, the sky is the limit here. A number of the young guys played some decent minutes last year, and one or more of them will need to really step up to fill in the big gaps left by graduation.
7. Holy Cross Crusaders
Last Season: 12-18 (4-10), 7th in the Patriot League
Departures: Phil Beans (9.0 ppg), Jordan Stevens (5.7 ppg), Eric Obeyseker (4.1 ppg)
This is likely optimistic for Holy Cross given the loss of the frontcourt help for Dave Dudzinski. But the Crusaders should be better, if only because some many of the teams come back to the pack this season. That Bucknell is behind them in these predictions, and Lehigh is a shaky prediction at best, it is possible for Holy Cross fans to believe there is hope for something other than a loss when those teams show up in town. This team needs to improve on defense. Dudzinski and Malcolm Miller do their jobs swatting away shots, but this is a team that just can't take the ball away from the other team. Just four teams stole the ball at a worse rate than Holy Cross, and two of them play in the Patriot League. Now one of those was Bucknell, and we all know what they could do, but that required having the best player in the league. Dudzinski could be that guy, but the rest of the team needs to help him out.
Last Season: 28-6 (12-2), 1st in Patriot League, Lost in NCAA 1st round to Butler.
Key Returners: Cameron Ayers (12.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg), Ryan Hill (27 starts).
Is it harsh to put Bucknell at No. 8? Probably, but this team looked totally different whenever Mike Muscala would go to the bench last season. And Muscala isn't the only key piece of last year's tournament team that is gone. Cameron Ayers was an underrated star for the Bison, but he won't be able to do it alone, especially when there is really nothing left to help him on this squad. We are just so conditioned over the past three years to see Bucknell at the top of the standings, that this will be a real shock to the system. Even in recent history, there have been just two years that you would consider "off" for the Bison. So what do you do? You rebuild and maybe change a little of the makeup of the team. How about adding in John Azzinaro out of Texas at the point guard spot. He could connect with Ayers quite a bit this coming season, as he should be in the running for at least a taste of the starting job.
Last Season: 8-23 (2-12), 8th in the Patriot League
Departures: Ryan Spandaford (1.3 ppg)
Navy is silently building something even if its results from last season didn't show it. This is another young team, like Army. They lose just one player, who didn't give them much, like Boston University. Now, they didn't have the big senior player like Ellis to lead them last season, and they don't have the core that Boston University does. But Tilman Dunbar will challenge to get into the all-conference talk, and he has the chops to at least be mentioned as the best point guard in the league this season. When you have something special like that, you have the chance to compete. And Navy is going to be the spoiler at some point this season. They played almost everyone on the deep bench last season, looking for the answer, and they slow the game to a trickle. Anything can happen if they can just keep it close (and learn how to shoot threes). But this team needs more offense, and it can't just be Dunbar jacking up shot after shot -- not that his 86.3 ORat stands out at all.
10. American Eagles
Last Season: 10-20 (5-9), 6th in the Patriot League
Departures: Stephen Lumpkins (14.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg) , Daniel Munoz (10.3 ppg)
The loss of Stephen Lumpkins may set American back farther than the loss of Muscala does for Bucknell. He was only a transfer, but Lumpkins was an easy target for this team, and was easily the most valuable guy on the floor night in and night out for the Eagles. Tony Wroblicky doesn't have that same size or skill to replace him, and the supporting cast that is left won't provide much help. That is why it looks like an easy pick to find American in the cellar this coming season. The bright side is that they may have the best name in the league in freshman forward Yilrep Yiljep. #winning.