Friday, October 26, 2012

Conference Calling's 31 in 31 Series: 2012-13 Patriot League Preview

The Conference Calling 31 in 31 preview series will examine each of the NCAA Division I auto-bid conferences (so no Great West or independents), one per day, leading up to college basketball's opening day on November 9. 


Did you know what conference Lehigh was in before March 16th? Hell, did you know what state Lehigh was in before March 16th?

Come on now, don't lie. I'd like our relationship to be built on a foundation of trust.

While Lehigh was becoming a national darling by toppling Duke in the NCAA tournament, Bucknell players and fans could only sit back and shake their heads. The Bison had the regular-season title. Instead of C.J. McCollum draining threes over Austin Rivers, it should have been Mike Muscala dunking over the entire damn Plumlee family, including posterizing Grandma so hard her dentures landed in some cheerleader's cleavage.

Alas, conference tournaments need something to justify their existence. At least Lehigh had had a worthy regular season. If the Bison had lost to a team that just had a Western Kentucky-type season, they'd still be putting out burning couches or whatever civil disobedience they get up to in Lewisburg.

Another season, however, brings one more chance at revenge for the Bison. One more round of David (McCallum) vs. Goliath (Muscala). Bucknell has two regular-season titles and one NCAA bid to Lehigh's one regular-season crown and two tournaments. To even it up, it's time for Lehigh to take the season and Bucknell to own March.

Is that what's coming? Read on after the jump.

1. Bucknell
--10 of the top 11 guys are back from a group that's won 50 games the past two seasons and ranked as one of the 40 or so best defensive teams in the nation last year (36th in scoring, 25th in FG%). The center is the best all-around big man the Patriot League has ever seen, Adonal Foyle be damned. Two shooting guards knock down more than 40% of their threes. This is a veteran herd of Bison.

And yet everyone and their dog is still basking in the afterglow from March and picking Lehigh. Decent pick, but Bucknell's a better one.

Center Mike Muscala won't be able to walk the streets of Tucson for the rest of his life after bouncing Arizona from the NIT with a 20-and-9-and-four-block performance. He followed that up with 25 and 15 in a valiant loss to Nevada. Muscala's the league's best rebounder, a deft passer, a shot-blocking force, and a guy who will always get his points because he makes nearly seven free throws a game. Good luck slowing him down without an elephant tranquilizer.

Muscala's frontcourt mates Joe Willman and Brian Fitzpatrick aren't chopped bologna, either. Willman lives off the mid-range jumper, often finding himself open when his man sags onto Muscala. He led the league with a .528 FG% last season, but took only two threes and 55 free throws all year. Fitzpatrick took 87% as many free throws in about 40% of the minutes. He was an authoritative finisher inside, and could probably fill in ably if Willman went down.

Freshman Dom Hoffman (6'7", 220) may already be prepared for steady minutes. He's a smart post player who's capable of orchestrating from the elbow as well. He crushed the nation's No. 8 team, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) to the tune of 24 and 13 with five blocks.

On the wing, 6'5" junior Cameron Ayers and 6'2" senior Bryson Johnson are two of the Patriot's best three-point shooters and must be accounted for at all times. Johnson got bumped to the bench despite a resume that included .456 three-point shooting as a sophomore. He fell off slightly last season as he adapted to the bench, but is still the league's premier sixth man.

The point guard spot has three interested applicants, two with experience. Junior Ryan Hill beat out sophomore Steve Kaspar for the spot last year, and should repeat the performance this year. Kaspar showed the ability to make more plays on defense and on the glass than Hill last season, but truly foul foul shooting (40%) makes Kaspar hard to rely on for lengthy minutes. If he's been locked in the gym this summer and can count on 70% or so from the line, he could still take the job. Freshman Ryan Frazier may be more dynamic than either one, capable of getting his own shot and harrassing opponents defensively.

More backcourt depth comes from 6'6" swingman Ben Brackney (.657 TS% last season), sophomore Joshea Singleton (.486 FG% in limited minutes) and freshman Chris Hass (28 PPG career...not season, career).

That could form a legitimate 12-deep roster. Coach Dave Paulsen is not a tempo guy, but with this kind of depth, he easily could be. Considering that Lehigh's bench is very unproven (more on that in a moment), it's hard for this writer to bet against a Bison stampede.

2. Lehigh
--For two straight seasons, McCollum has been one of America's top 10 scorers. For all three of his seasons, he's ranked in the nation's top 50 and the league's top two. The thing is, a team with multiple NBA draft picks like Duke simply doesn't fall to a one-man team. You've heard all about McCollum, but what about the backing band? Enough Mick, let's talk about Charlie and Woody for a minute. Right after they play "Gimme Shelter."

Okay, where were we? Point guard Mackey McKnight (a TV private dick name if ever I heard one) may be the perfect complementary piece to a dominant scorer like McCallum. McKnight rolled through a season with a 2.1 A/T ratio, finishing fourth in the league in both assists and steals.

Lost in McCollum Mania were C.J.'s shooting numbers from the Patriot first round against Colgate and the two NCAA games. In those three games, McCollum shot a pale 20-of-64 (31%). McKnight had his back, though, averaging nearly 16 PPG on 44% shooting.

Senior Gabe Knutson (6'9", 220) produces with staggering consistency (12.2 PPG each of the past two years with career RPG figures of 5.6/5.7/5.6). He has improved his shot over his career, reaching 80% from the line last year and even stroking a few threes. Wing Holden Greiner (6'8", 210) struggled with an ankle injury exacerbated by a heavy early workload. Even with that, he was very nearly a 10-and-5 man, putting 17 on Iowa State and 24 on Michigan State. A gimpy Greiner was one of the Patriot's most efficient scorers, so what is a healthy one capable of?

The heavy workload isn't likely to change, as the Hawks' frontcourt is fairly thin. Sophomores Conroy Baltimore (serious pimp name; should Mackey McKnight be trying to arrest him?) and Tyrone Staggers played very little last season, but Baltimore in particular intrigues the coaches with strong rebounding and shot-blocking ability. Swingman Stefan Cvrkalj scored on 38% of his three-point attempts last season, and his name would score you 23 points in Scrabble. Freshman Justin Goldsborough may get minutes immediately.

Guard B.J. Bailey made Austin Rivers' life hell in the NCAA win, and may frustrate his own defenders with more minutes and shots. Veterans Anthony D'Orazio and Corey Shaefer will have to hold off slashing freshman Devon Carter, a 20-PPG man as a senior.

The Hawks have more top-of-the-roster talent than any team in the Patriot, but depth is a concern. If any of the top guys goes down, can the role players fill in well enough to hold off Bucknell? Says here not so much.

3. Holy Cross
--Compared to many of the other front lines in the Patriot League, Holy Cross's bigs may prompt a response of "Holy shit." The Crusaders have five players 6'8" or taller, and they all appear to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Seriously, that's a luxury for bigs at this level, except for the freaks like Muscala.

6'9" junior Dave Dudzinski is expected to carry the largest share of the load. A 9.4/6.0 player last season, Dudzinski is also good for a block per game and does his work effectively without fouling (only four hacks per 40). He could stand to draw more fouls from others, though, because he can make them pay for the effort (.831 at the line, fourth in the league).

Senior Phil Beans and sophomore Taylor Abt can both step out and hit jumpers from range (.368 and .429, respectively, from three). Beans started 26 games last year, but needs to work harder on defense to keep the major minutes. Abt has the opposite problem. At 8.8 fouls per 40 last season, he needs to be a bit less of a hardnose this year.

Senior Eric Obeysekere has yet to prove himself as an offensive weapon, but on the glass and the defensive end, he's fierce. One of the Patriot's most efficient rebounders and last season's No. 2 shot-blocker, Obeysekere simply needs to maintain his focus for 40 minutes to become an all-conference candidate.

Sophomore point guard Justin Burrell is one of the Patriot's best and quickest playmakers. He came second in the league in assists last season, but this year, his scoring obligations may increase. He struggled badly with his shot (.361 eFG%), and his mid-range game may be the key to opening up the entire HC offense. He can beat anyone off the dribble if they step up to contest his long jumper. If he can consistently drain the 12-foot pullup, post defenders will have to respect him as well, opening up more passing lanes to the Crusaders' bigs.

Senior Dee Goens provides capable ballhandling and steady defense when Burrell needs a rest.

On the wing, senior Jordan Stevens and sophomore Malcolm Miller make an interesting platoon. Stevens is the gunner, making 44% from the arc last season. The 6'6" Miller is a springy athlete who struggles with a jumper, but can be a factor on defense and the glass. His highlight was a 9-and-5 game with three blocks against San Francisco, especially since he fell out of the rotation and only scored eight points the rest of the season afterward.

Freshman guards Cullen Hamilton and Eric Green make a nice platoon themselves, kind of a scale model of Stevens and Miller. Hamilton (25 PPG as a senior) is the mini-Stevens and Green is a better defender than scorer, like Miller. Up front, rookies Christopher Morgan and Isaiah Baker will provide extra depth.

The Crusaders have an interesting blend of youth and experience, skill and athleticism. Better shooting, especially from outside, will be essential to staying on the heels of Lehigh and Bucknell, because the bigs can do some interesting things if they're not wading through five sets of limbs to reach the tin.

4. American
--The Eagles lost the top two scorers off last year's team, but their string of 10 straight top-half finishes should still extend, thanks to a returning leader from 2010-11.

6'8" senior Stephen Lumpkins was a 13-and-8 man before heading off to be really terrible at baseball. Suitably chastened, he returns to the hardwood hoping that he can get his scoring average anywhere close to that ugly-ass ERA. Lumpkins was a top-five FG shooter as both a sophomore and junior, and if he can make a bit of improvement on his 62% free throw stroke, book him for the All-Patriot team.

Lumpkins makes an attractive target for league assist champ Daniel Munoz. The pairing of Lumpkins with 6'10" junior Tony Wroblicky (6.5/6.0/52 blocks) will collapse a lot of defenses and let Munoz fire from three, where he hit better than 43% last year.

Other than Wroblicky and Lumpkins, the size is shaky. Coach Jeff Jones swears 6'8" sophomore Kyle Kager can score, and he had so much faith in Kager's potential that he played him 16 minutes last season. 6'11" freshman Zach Elcano (13/9 with 3 BPG) could be an immediate factor in relief of Wroblicky, who can be vulnerable to fouls.

More shooting should come from Rutgers transfer Austin Carroll, who drained almost 38% from deep in his 35 games in Jersey. Carroll can also provide another ballhandler, but he's not as reliable as Munoz, who dished two assists for every turnover last year. 6'5" sophomore John Schoof largely struggled, but Jones hopes he can channel the Schoof that scored 12 on Georgetown and 18 against Colgate.

6'6" senior Mike Bersch got a few minutes late last season after being an afterthought for a year-plus. He largely served as a stopgap fifth body, but did score 18 points in 18 minutes against Army and Lafayette, making three of six from deep in the process. 5'11" senior Blake Jolivette was a strong producer in pre-conference play (30 points against Villanova and Georgetown), but he tailed off in mid-January. He may lose the most with Carroll's arrival.

Freshmen Jesse Reed (the shooter) and Marko Vasic (the penetrator) may see some time, and one could even threaten for a starting spot if Schoof can't schoot.

The Eagles had issues scoring last season, and that was with the 30 PPG contributed by Charles Hinkle and Troy Brewer. Lumpkins helps, but the next best option is...who? Carroll? Munoz? A freshman? The man, the myth that is Kyle Kager? Jones is also threatening to play some zone on defense. With all of this, why pick American third?

Because it seems AU does this every year, and Jones figures out a way to contend in the Patriot. Lumpkins will score, Wroblicky will improve without having to be the entire post game, and there are enough potential shooters that someone's got to be productive eventually.

5. Army
--Senior forward Ella Ellis joined C.J. McCollum in an exclusive club last season. The two were the only Patriot Leaguers to average 15 points, four rebounds and two assists per game. Not huge numbers, but this kind of versatility doesn't grow on trees in this conference, yannow? LeBron James is not walking through that door.

Ellis should easily repeat his All-Patriot first-team selection, earned by finishing top-15 in the league in all eight major stat categories. If there's any complaint about Ellis's game last season, it's that an 82% FT shooter should have a better FTR than .432. There are plenty of shooters around Ellis to open things up for drives to the basket. If he draws a free throw for every two shots (.500), he could average close to 20 PPG.

Those shooters include senior Jason Pancoe and junior Josh Herbeck, both of whom were better than 40% from the arc last season. Granted, Pancoe struggled with injuries for the second straight year, but he's a 34% shooter for his career. Herbeck ranked third in the Patriot with 75 made threes last season.

Sophomore Maxwell Lenox filled in for Pancoe at the point last season and finished sixth in the league in assists. He also showed Ellis what it means to attack the basket, carding a .633 FTR. That FTR and his actual FT% would have resulted in another 64 points for Ellis last season, adding 2.1 to his scoring average and making it 19.6 per game. Told you he could get close to 20.

Senior forward Jordan Springer is a strong rebounder and occasional inside scorer who finished second on the team in rebounding, just 0.3 per game behind Ellis. Problem? Springer was second to no one in the PL when it came to hacking kids. He committed 8.1 fouls per 40 and fouled out nine times, meaning he spent way too much time watching games.

It's a strong starting five that Army will be suiting up this season. Beyond these guys, though, there's not a lot of D-I minutes back. Sophomore guard Mo Williams started seven games last year and is another solid scorer with a nose for the basket. Classmate Whit Thornton, a 6'7" forward, played about 11 MPG and was a better passer than scorer in that time.

From there, it's a bunch of West Point Prep (aka USMAPS) alumni fighting for spots. Guard Dylan Cox was the USMAPS MVP (OMG) last season, while Kyle Wilson led the team in scoring at 16.3 PPG. Forward Larry Toomey (6'6", 205) and center Kevin Ferguson (6'10", 200) were also double-digit scorers for USMAPS.

Coach Zach Spiker started practice with 26 players on the roster, including 11 freshmen. He'll draw from the "B-squad" as needed during the season. With that many bodies, it sounds so odd to say that depth is a concern, but experienced depth is definitely a problem. If a few of these freshmen exceed expectations, Army could earn a home tournament game. If not, the best the Black Knights can hope for is that no starter gets hurt from an excessive workload.

6. Colgate
--Picking the best performers off a team that went 8-22 is like picking the least annoying Real Housewife of (insert city here). It can be done, but the criteria must be very relaxed and the screening process can be painful.

Four of Colgate's top six scorers are gone, but since no one averaged in double figures, how big a loss is it really? Guards Pat Moore and Mitch Rolls are the primary returning weapons, both coming off seasons of 43% three-point shooting. Their accuracy was one of the only real strengths that the Red Raiders mustered last season. Rolls is a point guard by trade, but he may be more valuable as a scorer. Sophomore Luke Roh had a solid second half, averaging around five points, four boards and two assists over the final 13 games, and he may start alongside the two upperclassmen.

Senior forward Murphy Burnatowski is one of the more closely watched newcomers to the Patriot this season. One of the final cuts from the Canadian national team, Burnatowski was a 6-and-3 man over his two seasons at Maine. He performed against solid competition as a Black Bear, putting up 17 points against Maryland and 20 against Penn State in 2010.

6'11" John Brandenburg is a guy that Colgate coach Matt Langel would love to start, but issues with conditioning have kept him to about 13 minutes per game. He can be a strong inside scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker, but not if he's panting his way up the court. The other centers on the roster combined for 33 minutes last season. That's total, not per game.

Senior Brandon James is most likely to join Burnatowski as a starting forward. James nailed six threes against Lehigh en route to a 20-point night, and he had six games of six or more rebounds last season. With starter's minutes, he could be a 12-and-6 player.

Freshman Alex Ramon and juco transfer Damon Sherman-Newsome will be counted on for backcourt depth, while 6'6" sophomore Matt McMullen should see frontcourt minutes.

Defense is likely to remain a major issue for the Raiders. They finished as one of the 10 worst defensive teams in America, according to Ken Pomeroy. If Burnatowski and James can provide some inside scoring, the games may at least be more competitive (16 of 22 losses by 10-plus), and a break here and there could steal a few wins. But a home conference tournament game still looks like a pipe dream.

7. Lafayette
--The top of Lafayette's roster was an experienced group last season, but most of the supporting cast was comprised of Leopard cubs, freshmen pressed into immediate service. Four of the top six scorers are gone this year, and the key to it all may be struggling with injury problems similar to those that cost him last year.

Point guard Tony Johnson was somehow voted to the All-Patriot second team despite playing in only 12 games. Back and foot injuries bookended games where Johnson didn't always score, but his passing and defense led LC to a 6-6 record when he was in the lineup. They were 7-12 without him.

Johnson's 3.4 A/T ratio would have sat third in America, he would have been first in the Patriot with 4.2 APG and his .657 TS% would have ranked in the top 20 nationwide. All of this was done while still struggling to rebound from the back injury.

After sitting out most of the summer work, Johnson has injured the other foot and his return time is indefinite. Junior Les Smith is battling two freshmen for reps at the 1. Smith had his best scoring game in the season's last game, a Patriot semifinal loss to Bucknell. Rookies Zach Rufer and Bryce Scott are seeing time, but Scott (22.5 PPG as a senior) may be more helpful on the wing. Rufer played an all-around game as a senior (15.6 P/4.4 R/6.0 A/3.1 SPG) and is capable of putting pressure on opponents at either end.

Sophomore wings Joey Ptasinski (6'2", 172) and Seth Hinrichs (6'7", 214) and center Dan Trist (6'9", 217) are the top returning scorers, and the three will need to become leaders after last season's baptism, especially if Johnson misses time. The two perimeter players were superbly efficient, Hinrichs recording a .623 eFG% and a .652 TS% to Ptasinski's .595 and .609.

Trist struggled by comparison, with both his shooting efficiencies below 48%. He had a run of four double-figure scoring games in late January, but was often a peripheral figure. He and senior Levi Giese (6'9", 215) both struggled to beat their opponents on the boards, becoming two large reasons the Leopards lagged last in the league in rebounding. Californian freshman Ben Freeland (6'10", 215), 6'10" Aussie Nathaniel Musters and 6'9" Connecticut native Billy Murphy will need to provide depth early, and don't discount the chance that at least one starts.

LC's defense and rebounding both struggled last season, and it'll be hard to spot much improvement in this underclass-dominated team during a ridiculously tough non-conference slate (Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Stanford, LIU twice). If Johnson misses several games, the offense will be without its only proven creator. No team in the Patriot is forced to demand as much from its freshman class. Fourth place is possible, but there will need to be a host of All-Rookie performances as strong as Hinrichs, Trist and Ptasinski's last year.

8. Navy
--The Midshipmen had issues last season. Obviously, since they won only three games. They still have issues this season, and coach Ed DeChellis knows it. There are no seniors on the roster, only seven freshmen, six sophomores and four juniors. Only two of the 17 players are taller than 6'6" and five are 6'0" or shorter. The only two guys who averaged more than 7.1 PPG are gone.

Like the old joke says, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how'd you like the play?"

Guard Isaiah Roberts and forward Worth Smith are the primary building blocks. Roberts dropped 19 and 20 points on Bucknell in the regular-season finale and tournament opener, so he's capable of dominant efforts. He's one of only two returnees who shot better than 30% from deep last season, and his 32% (on only 34 attempts, to boot) isn't all that sexy.

Smith was second on the team at five RPG and also blocked 22 shots. He, too, had a nice game against Bucknell, racking 16 and 9 in their late January meeting.

Junior Brennan Wyatt is likely to compete for the point guard spot with freshman Tilman Dunbar, who averaged 10.4 P/7.2 A/3.1 SPG as a senior. Junior Thurgood Wynn and sophomores Donya Jackson and Brandon Venturini add extra bodies in the backcourt. Wynn managed to score in double figures in two of Navy's three wins.

Of the two big guys, one is a freshman and the other played a total of 148 minutes as a freshman last year. The sophomore, 6'10" Jared Smoot, was a decent rebounding presence in his limited time. Anything else may be a bonus. Freshman Will Kelly was an 8-and-8 man as a high school senior, adding three blocks per night. It's not out of the question to think Kelly might seize a starting spot, but bulking up his 6'9", 211-pound frame first might help.

A military academy already has a handicap, struggling to secure players of sufficient talent who also strive for a higher purpose than just playing ball. DeChellis knows how to rebuild conventional programs, such as his first two head coaching stops at East Tennessee State and Penn State. This is a different beast, though. We may be looking at another two to three years before Navy's able to get off the canvas.

In this section: each team's most compelling non-conference game, weighted for visibility and chance of a win.
American: Dec. 9 vs. Columbia
--Two teams considered dark horses in the two non-scholarship leagues. Stephen Lumpkins vs. Mark Cisco. Better viewing than American/Kansas, surely.
Army: Dec. 8 at Penn State
--Currently the Black Knights' only scheduled TV appearance, it could be a winnable one if Ella Ellis can tear up an iffy Lions frontcourt.
Bucknell: Nov. 9 at Purdue
--As a born-and-bred Purdue fan, I'm scared shitless of what Muscala will do to freshman A.J. Hammons and uber-scrubs Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius.
Colgate: Nov. 25 at Syracuse
--Good luck, Godspeed and happy Thanksgiving, boys.
Holy Cross: Dec. 29 at Boston College
--BC took an 86-64 pimp-slapping at the Hart Center last season. Now, they'll be down for revenge in Chestnut Hill.
Lafayette: Nov. 16 at Kentucky
--The opponents are either murderous or meaningless, so why not aim big? UK's practice scrimmages will provide tougher tests.
Lehigh: Nov. 12 vs. Robert Morris (NIT Season Tip-Off, Pittsburgh)
--A win here would put the Mountain Hawks up against either Pitt or Fordham for a trip to MSG. McCollum and McKnight vs. Velton Jones and Coron Williams is an intriguing guard battle. Very tempted to list Lehigh's trip to North Texas.
Navy: Nov. 11 vs. Siena
--If it's possible to posterize someone by ripping a rebound down over their heads, look for O.D. Anosike to accomplish it.

"It's so pretty, I'ma just leave it up here."
F Ella Ellis, Army (6'7", 195, Sr.)
--Greater aggression and fewer threes could win Ellis a scoring title.
F Gabe Knutson, Lehigh (6'9", 220, Sr.)
--Helped get the Hawks to the NCAA tournament by drawing three second-half fouls on Muscala. More than just an enforcer for McCollum.
G C.J. McCollum, Lehigh (6'3", 190, Sr.)
--He's been the best player in the Patriot from the day he walked in. Another POY award on tap.
C Mike Muscala, Bucknell (6'11", 234, Sr.)
--16 double-doubles last season. Methinks I might bet the over this year.
G Mackey McKnight, Lehigh (6'0", 170, Jr.)
--When McCollum's gone, it'll be McKnight's team.

G Cameron Ayers, Bucknell (6'5", 203, Jr.)
--Will score from anywhere. 1.8 A/T ratio shows that he's not stupid with the ball while he looks for his shot.
G Justin Burrell, Holy Cross (5'9", 165, Soph.)
--Averaged 11 PPG over final seven games last year. Needs to do that over full season.
F Dave Dudzinski, Holy Cross (6'9", 227, Jr.)
--Will certainly benefit if Crusaders' backcourt becomes more active.
F Stephen Lumpkins, American (6'8", 225, Sr.)
--Hitters are sad to see him go. The rest of the Patriot is sad to see him return. Last time we saw him, he racked nine double-doubles.
F Joe Willman, Bucknell (6'7", 217, Sr.)
--Versatile and quietly productive. High-low with Muscala is damn near unstoppable.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
COACH OF THE YEAR: Milan Brown, Holy Cross
--Brown's tempo is much sexier to the recruits than the walk-it-up style Ralph Willard used to run at HC. He's finally getting a crew together who can run it.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Cullen Hamilton, Holy Cross
--He'll get off the bus firing jumpers. With that front line, it'll be a few games before defenses start getting hands in his face.

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