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Mid-Major Top 20 Preview: Lehigh Mountain Hawks

Streeter Lecka - Getty Images

We continue our countdown of the top 20 programs from last season's MRI with a look at the team that pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA Tournament: the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.

Led by junior C.J. McCollum, 15-seeded Lehigh took out highly favored Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The win will probably be remembered more as it was one of two such upsets in the tournament, joined by Norfolk State's upset of Missouri.

And then there is McCollum who has at least a claim on being one of the best players in the country. He was an honorable mention All-American, but easily could have claimed a spot on the first team based on the numbers he put up last year... no matter who the competition was that he competed against.

We all know about the season that Anthony Davis put up. And we helped show you how mid-major, first-round draft pick Damian Lillard compared very favorably with the Kentucky star.

And then you pull up McCollum's numbers, and you have possibly the third best player in college basketball. Davis had a HOOPWAR of 12.99, the highest we have measured with the tool. Lillard was just behind at 12.53, and now McCollum adds another member of the 12 club. His score of 12.35 highlights exactly why McCollum ws the player of the year in the Patriot League. There were barely players more valuable nationally than the junior.

Now here is the scary part: McCollum could still get better. The jump he could experience as a senior could put him into the rarefied air of 13 win material. It won't be easy: if teams didn't know about McCollum before, they surely do now.

He will be the first line on every scouting report on the Mountain Hawks. He will be the last line on those same reports. This is who teams will end up keying on more and more this season.

McCollum does have help though, unlike some stars who fall into the one-hit wonder category. On the inside Lehigh will return the 1-2 punch of Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner. Knutson, who earned second team honors put up a 3.79 on the HOOPWAR scale. That is higher than any player on Wagner managed, who we previewed on Sunday.

And Greiner not only had a 2.16 HOOPWAR, a very strong contributing number, he had a DEF100 of 15.03 points. That is a big number based on his strong defensive rebound and his ability to guard without getting into foul trouble.

Here is the most important thing for Lehigh: the most important members of the shocking Mountain Hawks team from last year are back. Jordan Hamilton is gone, but the graduate actually cost Lehigh games based on his HOOPWAR score. The other two seniors from last year also were in negative territory. Only John Adams had some positive contribution, a DEF100 of almost 7 points.

That means Lehigh should be able to duplicate last season's marks, especially if one of the young forwards can step up for the Mountain Hawks. The best bet to contribute in a big way is sophomore Conroy Baltimore. In limited minutes, Baltimore had solid rebounding numbers, a very good shooting percentage, and was a massive contributor on the defensive end. If he can improve in the manner of most rising sophomores, and gets the majority of the open minutes, there is no reason that Lehigh can't exceed what they accomplished last season.

Bottom Line: Bucknell might be the favorite right now (according to a very early Bracketology), but Lehigh should be neck and neck in its ability to succeed in the Patriot League. A lot of that edge is C.J. McCollum, and if the senior is able to improve even a little, he could be considered a candidate for the player of the year, not just in the league, but in the entire country.

The Mountain Hawks have yet to release their schedule for the coming season, and a lot of the overall success for Lehigh could be dependent on the full slate they release. There is a chance to do more than just shock with a big number upset. There is a chance to be a real contender for a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament.