Saturday, November 2, 2013

Conference Calling's 2013-14 College Basketball Previews: #20 Patriot

The Patriot League itself is surely pleased with how it fared in the college basketball realignment domino game. New additions Boston University and Loyola (Md.) are strong programs that boast rising young coaches.

The membership, however, might be exasperated for the same reasons. Just when it seemed that the Lehigh/Bucknell stronghold was breaking with the departure of Lehigh's C.J. McCollum and Bucknell's Mike Muscala, here come a pair of teams fully equipped to win the race on their first lap.

Those two new members should, however, help the previous eight in one major regard: the RPI rating. Loyola and BU would have ranked third and fourth in the PL's Back Iron Index standings. The two faced off in the first round of the CIT, with Loyola's win propelling it to the quarterfinals.

Stronger league opposition creates a tide that raises all boats come Selection Sunday. When a victory is harder to come by, the computers give greater credit, making the selection committee take greater notice.

So forgive the other eight PL members if they don't roll out the red carpet for BU and Loyola, but know that whoever takes the NCAA bid will be glad the league was stronger for the additions.

Most likely to take that bid? Read on after the jump.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We're going into Super-Condensed Team Capsule Mode in an effort to cover each conference before opening night. Apologies to our top 20's fans, but I want to get the series finished this year.

(All stats and rankings via unless otherwise noted.)

1. Boston University

--Nearly every projection has BU running its brand-new league like a boss, and for good reason. All seven of coach Joe Jones' rotation players return, and a couple of newcomers could hit the ground fast.

Backcourt trio D.J. Irving, Maurice Watson and John Papale combined for nearly 35 points, nine boards and 10 assists per game. Watson was among the nation's top 20 in A%, and should be a cinch for All-Patriot if he can cut down his three turnovers per game. All Irving did was take All-America East honors after averaging 14 points and 3.6 dimes in his own right. Freshman guard Cedric Hankerson averaged 23 and 11 as a senior at Coral Reef (Miami) HS. He should provide a little offense from the bench before replacing top scorer Irving, who graduates after this season.

Up front, 240-pound banger Dom Morris is the closest thing the Terriers have to great inside presence, but he's only 6'7". Still, he should be more than competitive in the Patriot, and matching last season's 11.6/6.3 averages is easily attainable. Junior swingman Malik Thomas, senior Nathan Robinson and sophomore Nathan Dieudonne provide good wing shooting and depth. Either sophomore Justin Alston or 7-foot freshman Dylan Haines could give BU a true center, which is one of the few things the Terriers currently lack.

Backcourt injuries may be the one thing that can slow BU this season, since past the three starters and Hankerson, there's not much production or experience. Good health will keep the Terriers going 10-deep, and none of their new leaguemates can boast a roster this skilled.

2. Lafayette
--The key to the Leopards living up to this prediction is the point guard position. Graduated star Tony Johnson was only the PL's most efficient offensive player, and his potential replacements were...not. Senior Les Smith and sophomore Zach Rufer shot a combined 26% last season. Smith's a strong perimeter defender, but not an offensive threat. Freshman Nick Lindner should get a ton of minutes, if not win the starting job outright. Sophomore off-guard Bryce Scott could be an option as well. Scott shot 43% from deep last season and carded a better A/T ratio than any of the other candidates.

Four of LC's starters should be set in stone, with Scott, junior sniper Joey Ptasinski and junior forwards Seth Hinrichs and Dan Trist all having varying measures of all-conference potential. The 6'7" Hinrichs is a deadly three-point shooter, canning almost 46% through his first two seasons. Trist does his damage in the mid-range area and can be a dangerous scorer, but will need to improve his rebounding.

For that matter, ANYBODY picking up some slack on the glass would be welcome. Junior Alan Flannigan was the best board man by percentage last year. Sophomores Ben Freeland, Billy Murphy and Nathaniel Musters all stand 6'9" or taller, but none were major producers as freshmen. If the Leopards can only pull 67% on the defensive glass this year, finishing in the top half could be a major task, never mind winning the title.

3. Army

--Like Lafayette, Army is prepared to shrug off the loss of an All-PL star and keep it moving. Ella Ellis was a 17-PPG man, and his production is unlikely to be replaced easily, but the Black Knights got fantastic work from last season's freshman class. Five of them return after averaging at least 7.7 MPG.

Point guard Dylan Cox was a 55% effective shooter who took limited looks, because he was more concerned with setting up others. He may take a few more shots with Ellis gone, but he's still got plenty of potential assists on the roster. Swingman Kyle Wilson actually took two more shots than Ellis last season, making 41% from deep, and he should be expected to seamlessly take over as the primary option. 6'10" center Kevin Ferguson and 6'6" forward Larry Toomey can become strong complementary options if they maintain starters' minutes. Ferguson put up 10.3/18.1 rebounding splits and blocked 10% of opponents' available shots.

The team's lone senior, guard Josh Herbeck, missed most of last season with injury, but the career 39% three-point shooter should provide one more floor spacer for coach Zach Spiker's offense. The Knights will need some bulk to step up behind Ferguson, though. Sophomores Kyle Weldon, Tanner Plomb and Travis Rollo can provide some rebounding prowess. 6'10" freshman Kieffer Jordan, a high school swimmer, should be more than capable of going hard for occasional minutes.

They don't look much different today, eh?
Turnovers were Army's only real stumbling block last season. The Knights forced an 18.8 TO% while committing errors on nearly 21% of their own possession. With a year's experience, look for Cox to tighten up his handle.

Army made a little history last season, carding its first winning season since 1985. Doing so again would be a feat that hasn't been accomplished since 1979, when West Point's sideline was roamed by an ambitious young whippersnapper named...

...Mike Krzyzewski. (Yeah, it's been a while.)

4. Holy Cross
--Crusaders coach Milan Brown wants to run. In his fourth year, he may have recruited the kind of athletes who can do that more often. The big problem will come if HC can't find the depth to afford greater defensive aggressiveness. Only nine teams in America forced a lower TO% than Holy Cross.

Point guard Justin Burrell will flip the switch on both ends. He improved markedly as a shooter last season and ranked third in the PL in A%. He does need to cut the turnovers, however, since he put up only 1.3 dimes for each giveaway. Of course, as long as he keeps pumping into the lane to All-PL big man Dave Dudzinski, the assists will come. Double D can score inside and out, making 18 threes last year. He may need to shoulder a bigger rebounding load than last season's 6.6, and his 9.9/17.3 splits suggest he's very capable of doing so.

Athletic forwards Malcolm Miller and Christopher Morgan can both get to the rim at will, but must produce from some sort of range to be positive factors in the halfcourt offense. Junior Taylor Abt and sophomore Cullen Hamilton must also provide some shooting to spread things out. Sophomore guard Eric Green could be the pickpocket Brown needs to start some breaks. It won't be a surprise if he pips Hamilton for a starting role. Also, look for freshman Anthony Thompson to provide quality relief for Burrell, allowing him to play more aggressively on defense.

5. Colgate
--Murphy Burnatowski balled so hard for Colgate last season, finishing third in the Patriot at 17.4 PPG on 50% effective shooting. Now, how about a little help here?

Supporting pieces John Brandenburg and Brandon James graduated, so if the Raiders are going to keep doing great work on the defensive glass, some unproven pieces have to put in work. Senior Clayton Graham is the only experienced big man, and he put up 10/15 rebounding splits in his 10 MPG last season. Ohio transfer Ethan Jacobs played next to no minutes in Athens, freshman Wyatt Hagerty just went through a major growth spurt, and Cali freshman John Fenton put up 18 and 18 per game as a senior. A good passer, Fenton should push his way into the starting five by season's end.

The backcourt has a lot of complementary pieces, but no true stars. Junior Luke Roh does just about everything (6.6 RPG, 3.5 APG) except shoot. Even at only 6'4", more than half his shots came at the rim. The defense is free to ignore him when he's at the arc to help on true shooters like Pat Moore (40.7%). Monmouth transfer Austin Tillotson is a capable shooter and passer who should let Roh roam more often.

Much like Holy Cross, Colgate needs to get in ballhandlers' shorts more often and swipe some balls. (Wait, that didn', never mind, we'll go with it.) Burnatowski was the only Raider with a S% above 2.0 last season, which makes Tillotson (2.6% as a freshman two seasons ago) all the more important.

6. Lehigh
--Nearly 60 PPG walked out the door with the departed C.J. McCollum, Holden Greiner, Gabe Knutson and B.J. Bailey. Now, Lehigh coach Brett Reed has to rebuild around senior Mackey McKnight and throw a host of freshmen into the fire immediately.

McKnight's been a top-five Patriot assist man all three of his seasons, winning the crown last season, but without McCollum to cover for him, his occasional taking of plays off will be harder to stomach. Players like senior Anthony D'Orazio and juniors Corey Schaefer and Stefan "Triple Word Score" Cvrkalj must replace the shooting lost with McCollum and Bailey. D'Orazio is a dangerous thief, tying McKnight for the team lead in steals despite playing 10 fewer MPG.

Up front, sophomore Justin Goldsborough should be a reliable presence on the glass and as a shot blocker. Junior Conroy Baltimore is a solid rebounder if he shows up to play every night. Sophomore Jesse Chuku should make an auspicious debut after running into NCAA red tape regarding his move from England, while freshman Tim Kempton may start from day one.

7. Bucknell

--It appears the Lehigh-Bucknell stranglehold is well and truly over. Like the Hawks, the Bison lost an NBA draft pick and most of his top supporting players. One guard returns to lead them, but Bucknell's Cameron Ayers is worthy of a bit more faith than Mackey McKnight. The son of former Ohio State coach Randy Ayers is a skilled, intelligent player, but can he possibly be a 55% effective shooter again with what little returns to help him out?

There is not another returnee who averaged more than 2.8 PPG last season. Guards Ryan Hill and Steven Kaspar will join Ayers in the backcourt, and neither is a great shooter to this point in his career. Both could make some plays on drives and kicks. Sophomore Ryan Frazier should provide pesky perimeter defense.

There's more experience up front, at least in terms of letters won. Senior Brian Fitzpatrick, sophomore Dom Hoffman, junior Cory Starkey and senior Ben Brackney are all capable role players, but can any of them be a consistent leader? Brackney (52% from deep the past two seasons) may be the top shooter on the team, including Ayers. Freshman Ben Oberfeld, a Minnesota product like graduated stud Mike Muscala, should contribute quickly as a rebounder and interior defender.

The Bison can't possibly get away with being last nationally in S% again, and it seems unlikely that the offense will only commit turnovers on 15% of its possessions again. Like it or not, the Bison will be the poster children for "regression to the mean" this season.

8. Loyola (Md.)
--Starting to sense a pattern here. A team that absorbed heavy losses after a good season returns one talented guard who was one of his league's top producers. Unlike Lehigh and Bucknell, however, Loyola's Dylon Cormier put in his work in the MAAC, not the Patriot. The Greyhounds have to adapt to a new coach and a new league, and that's a lot of change for a bunch of guys who'll also have to adapt to actual playing time.

Cormier struck for better than 16 PPG last season, but on only 44.4% effective shooting. He's not a tremendous three-point shooter, preferring to get more than half his shots at the rim. Point guard R.J. Williams can be a decent shooter, but he just doesn't hoist many (9.6 shot % last season). He needs to prove that he's grown up after sitting out half the season suspended for the always-enlightening "violation of team rules." Loyola (Ill.) transfer Denzel Brito and sophomore Tyler Hubbard will provide some scoring off the bench.

Watch for sophomore wing Jarred Jones, whose tempo-neutral rates were solid last season in only 11 MPG last season. He could come close to tripling that average this year. At 6'7", he can work inside or out. Senior Jordan Latham is the only other returnee with starting experience. While he's a strong shot blocker, he struggled to compete on the glass last season. If he can't come close to doubling last season's 5.5/10.1 rebounding splits, the Hounds will get routinely crushed inside.

9. American

--One starter returns for an Eagles team that slumped to a 20-loss season, only its fourth in 30 years. Center Tony Wroblicky was one of the Patriot's top offensive rebounders for the second straight year, and he should pull even harder on the glass without conference glass-eating king Stephen Lumpkins taking all the caroms. Not bad for a guy who wasn't supposed to be a starter as the season began.

Swingman John Schoof went from shooting 28% from deep as a freshman to 50% as a sophomore. Expect his true level to be somewhere in the middle, but his career 91% at the foul line tells us he can find his groove very easily. He should lead AU in scoring this season.

Junior point guard Darius "Pee Wee" Gardner may be the biggest key player of all for AU. He was a solid ballhandler (1.8 A/T ratio) and defender (two seasons with S% above 3.0) for Stephen F. Austin before transferring. Swingman Jesse Reed produced when he got time last season, averaging 7.7 PPG when he played 24 minutes or more. Look for him to crack the starting five and get easily that many this season. Nigerian forward Yilret Yiljep, in addition to having one of the best names in all of ball, should be a strong, springy presence on defense and the glass.

If both Reed and Schoof shoot up to their potential, Gardner's hand is steady on the till and another big man steps up to complement Wroblicky, the Eagles could push for a precious top-six place (top six get byes in the new PL tournament). That's a lot of ifs, though.

10. Navy

--Navy could very easily get out of the cellar, considering that there are two potential all-conference performers on the roster. Junior forward Worth Smith slumped a bit on the boards as a sophomore, but he kept his shooting percentages stable with increased usage, and that's not always easy. Defensively, he finished third in the PL in blocks and fifth in steals, and all this was done with a bum shoulder.

Point guard Tilman Dunbar ranked ninth in America with a 41.5 A%, and his 152 dimes were a Patriot freshman record. The Midshipmen may be better off, however, if he never shoots. He was a 38% effective shooter last year. Juniors Brandon Venturini and Kevin Alter and sophomore Kendall Knorr (combined 34.5% from deep) can provide the scoring threat Dunbar can't. If the returnees aren't careful, freshman shooter Tim Abruzzo could steal minutes. He drained 193 threes in his high school career.

Sophomore forward Will Kelly cracked the starting lineup late and made the most of the chance. Over the final 10 games, he averaged 5.1/5.5, including a dub-dub against Lehigh and a 13-board game against American. The 6'9" 225-pounder should start from day one and could form a great forward duo with Smith.

Possible 20-10 man bringing ball up. Good luck, Navy.

American: Nov. 8 at George Mason
--Mason's entering its new A-10 era. Might be too much to ask for the Eagles to hope the Pats are looking ahead in the season opener.
Army: Dec. 22 at Rutgers
--Do you like your Knights Scarlet or Black? Army could just take down a program full of guys still trying to get to know each other, even near Christmas.
Boston University: Dec. 7 vs. Harvard
--Every non-Ivy opponent should have Harvard circled this season, with the Crimson seeing so much Top 25 love.
Bucknell: Nov. 13 at Penn State
--PSU's always a threat for the non-con upset, and Bucknell nearly got them last season. But again, that was a much better Bucknell team and State was missing Tim Frazier.
Colgate: Dec. 7 at Georgetown
--Don't hold yer breath waiting for a win, but just hope for a competitive effort on Fox Sports 1.
Holy Cross: Dec. 28 at Michigan
--Unlikely to get a win, but Dudzinski could put himself on the national radar if he plays well against All-America candidate Mitch McGary.
Lafayette: Nov. 8 at Villanova
--When you're still trying to figure out who your point guard is, why not throw the candidates in against a pest like Ryan Arcidiacono and see who sinks or swims?
Lehigh: Nov. 8 at Minnesota
--Always an interesting game when you catch a power-conference also-ran in a new coach's debut.
Loyola (Md.): Dec. 30 at Miami
--Over Christmas break is the perfect time to play a game in Miami. Take an extra day, perv on chicks at the beach, take the L and head home.
Navy: Nov. 8 at Towson
--I named Jerrelle Benimon a third-team All-American over at B/R. If Smith and Kelly can neutralize him, it makes that pick look really bad. Strangely, I'm not all that worried.

More like STUDzinski, amirite?

Cameron Ayers, Bucknell
Murphy Burnatowski, Colgate
Dave Dudzinski, Holy Cross
Seth Hinrichs, Lafayette
D.J. Irving, Boston University

Dylon Cormier, Loyola (Md.)
Mackey McKnight, Lehigh
Worth Smith, Navy
Maurice Watson, Boston University
Kyle Wilson, Army

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dave Dudzinski, Holy Cross
--If Brown can put the tempo up a notch, Dudzinski will crunch some numbers with the extra possessions. A double-double average may be too much to ask, but he can come real close.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Zach Spiker, Army
--Continuing to win without Ella Ellis will be seen as a major accomplishment.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Tim Kempton, Lehigh
--Low-post scorer, has range out to about 15 feet; he could be the top supporting scorer behind McKnight.

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