Patriot League Preview
by Matt DaSilva
Mid-major is such an ugly term in college basketball. You’ll hear the euphemisms like “true student-athletes” to justify the limited resources allotted the mid-major conferences and squads.
That being said, the Patriot League is a true mid-major conference, an automatic No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Resources are limited, players are less heralded, but the competition is fierce.
The conference enjoyed parity at its finest. Regular season champion American took the conference by storm in its very first season in the Patriot League. But they were upended in the conference finals by Holy Cross, which gave Kansas a run for its money in the NCAAs.
At the outset of a new season, it appears those two programs are favorites as contenders, but Colgate and Bucknell remain right on their tails. The Lehigh-Lafayette rivalry is one of the most contentious ones in the region, second maybe to another well-known Patriot League match-up. That is, of course, the heralded Army-Navy affair, which despite the teams’ respective lack of successes, is to be televised nationally again on CBS this season.
From top to bottom, the Patriot League promises to be one of the most unpredictable conferences on the East Coast in 2002-2003.
1. Holy Cross (18-15, 9-5)
Gracing the cover of the Crusaders media guide against the backdrop of their signature armor and royal purple is an oversized replica of the Patriot League brass conference trophy. It’s the same trophy that Holy Cross has taken home to Worcester, MA in each of the last two seasons, the same trophy the Crusaders are expected to reclaim in this 2002-2003 season.
At the bottom of the cover reads Holy Cross’ rallying cry for its campaign for a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance: “The pride is back.”
Despite falling behind American for the regular season title in 2001-2002, the Crusaders claimed the proverbial last laugh with a 58-54 upending of the Eagles in the conference championship game. That would set the stage for the second straight season in which Holy Cross would put a legitimate first-round scare into a national powerhouse at the Big Dance.
The Crusaders had the No. 2 team in the country on the ropes when they opened up a five-point lead over Kansas with 17:54 remaining in the Midwest Regional game, and then again when junior Tim Szatko iced three straight free throws to give Holy Cross a 49-48 lead with just 7:11 left on the clock.
But the Jayhawks, with the nation’s best offensive arsenal, finally broke through a Crusaders defense ranked eighth in the country with a 14-4 run over the final six minutes. Never before has a No. 16 seed defeated a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Kansas kept that in tact with a 70-59 victory.
Holy Cross had narrowly missed a similar upset just a year earlier, when the Crusaders were edged 72-68 by Kentucky. Still, a third straight trip to the Dance seems imminent, especially since Holy Cross returns 10 letter-winners. None are more noteworthy than Szatko.
Now a senior forward, Szatko was picked by Patriot League coaches as the Preseason Player of the Year after averaging 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season.
Joining Szatko are senior guard Brian Wilson (9.8 ppg, 46.2 percent three-point shooting) and junior point guard Jave Meade (4.5 assists, 2.15 steals per game), a veteran core leading an otherwise young squad.
However, with 12 first-place votes in the preseason poll and a season-opening rematch with Kansas on Nov. 19 in the Preseason NIT, there is belief around the Patriot League that Crusader pride is indeed back.
2. American (18-12, 10-4)
Head coach Jeff Jones received a lot of credit for engineering the Eagles to one of the most successful single-season turnarounds in the NCAA. In its inaugural season in the Patriot League, American took the new conference by storm in 2001-2002, finishing 10-4 to claim the conference’s regular season title. Moreover, an 11-game turnaround from 2000-2001’s 7-23 record had the Eagles finishing at an 18-12 clip, highlighted by a 77-72 win over the mighty ACC’s Florida State on Dec. 22.
Jones was named Patriot League Coach of the Year for American’s resurgence, but even he’ll admit he had a little help from the Doctor, as in conference Player of the Year Patrick Doctor.
The since-departed center averaged 15 points and six rebounds per game for the Eagles last season on the way to an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American campaign. Jones, now in his third year at the helm, has a huge void to fill on a roster that now sports just one true center in 6-10 freshman Jarrod Kohl.
With Doctor gone, Jones embarked on an off-season mission to sure up American’s frontcourt presence. In addition to Kohl, Jones took his ventures overseas in recruiting a tough-as-nails 6-7, 215-pound power forward from Lithuania named Raimondas Petrauskas.
While Kohl brings a versatile option in the form of an athletic big man who runs the floor well, Petrauskas’ physical presence in the post could earn him some minutes for the Eagles this season. With Holy Cross setting the tone with potent play in the paint, the rest of the conference has been trying to catch up.
American has been no exception. And while it remains to be seen whether Jones’ off-season tinkering will pan out to some frontcourt parity, the Eagles will still feature one of the best one-two backcourt tandems in the conference. Senior tri-captain Steven Miles averaged 11.8 ppg for American last season and, at 6-2, showed some prowess on the boards by hauling in 5.5 rebounds per game.
He shares backcourt duties with senior guard Glenn Stokes, who averaged 9.8 ppg and shot extremely well from the free-throw line (88 percent) in 2001-2002. Stokes’ instinctual play on the open floor makes him a perfect complement to Miles, and Stokes himself is a preseason All-Patriot League guard.
Regardless of how Jones’ frontcourt tinkering evolves, the Eagles’ depth makes them a surefire contender for the Patriot League crown.
3. Colgate (17-11, 8-6)
The Raiders lost their all-time leader in steals, games played and career starts in addition to last season’s leading scorer and rebounder- all in the form of one player.
Pat Campolieta, with his 14.8 ppg and 7.2 boards, nearly singlehandedly carried Colgate to an 8-3 finish last season before the Raiders fell to Lafayette, 74-71, in the first round of the conference playoffs.
However, judging by the No. 3 preseason conference ranking, Patriot League officials see fifth-year coach Emmett Davis finding solace in Colgate’s newfound depth.
The Raiders will live and die by their All-Patriot League guard Mark Linebaugh. The junior and former Rookie of the Year broke out last season under Campolieta’s tutelage, averaging 14.1 points while burying 44 three-pointers and shooting nearly 80 percent from the line. There’s questions concerning Linebaugh’s ability to handle the pressure of being the No. 1 option, but he silenced some critics against Lafayette in the conference tournament last season.
A changing of the guard was apparent as Linebaugh put together one of his finest games as a Raider, dropping 23 points while shooting 4-of-9 from three-point range. The deadly streak scorer picked up the slack for Campolieta, who managed just 10 points and was shut down in a forgettable season finale.
It is unlikely, however, that Colgate will go much further this year given its lack of size and physicality. Junior forward Howard Blue and Czech import Martin Marek are expected to fill up the 30-plus minutes a game that Campolieta ate up in the paint. Both are untested, and Marek is the only one with any significant size at 6-9 and 255 pounds.
A reliable backcourt, quarterbacked by senior point guard Dave Hardy, can only compensate so much for a vulnerable and undersized set of forwards. The Raiders have always had the reputation of the more nimble and versatile squad. But, with Campolieta out of the equation, the more physical Patriot League can feast on Colgate inside, not a promising prospect by any means.
4. Bucknell (13-16, 8-6)
On Aug. 29, 16 voters gathered to determine who was the cream of the Patriot League crop. One ballot gave the Bison a first-place nod.
First place? For a team that lost eight of its first 11 games last season, some to the likes of mid-major bottom dwellers like Canisius and Albany?
Well, before dubbing this presumably highly scrutinized voter as village idiot, take a look at Bucknell’s non-conference schedule and you’ll see that Pat Flannery’s 2002-2003 squad is garnering recognition elsewhere as well.
A season-opener at Notre Dame on Nov. 22 kicks off a riveting schedule that includes holiday tournaments at George Washington and Arizona State. While the Bison fell short in their bid to knock off Holy Cross in last season’s semifinals, nobody is taking them lightly this time around.
Experience, leadership, depth- Bucknell’s got it all. Injuries plagued them last season, but a positive byproduct had 11 of this year’s returning players starting at least one game last season. One of the two that didn’t get a start- Patriot League All-Rookie guard Chris Niesz.
They’ll miss First Team All-League forward Bryan Bailey and his league-best 17.4 ppg, but the Bison suffered little loss otherwise. A trio of start-studded seniors stacks up as one of the best top three sets in the conference. It starts with preseason All-League selection Boakal Lalugba, a legitimate Player of the Year candidate who ranked in the top ten in scoring (14.9 ppg), rebounding (7.1 boards per game), field-goal percentage (.556), blocks (0.9) and steals (1.3). Senior forward Brian Werner was hampered by a stress fracture last season, but still brought a toughness in addition to 9.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game as a key cog in Bucknell’s late-season push.
Lalugba and Werner provide a strong front for a team with a more than capable floor general in junior guard Dan Blankenship. Junior guard Chris Rodgers has a lethal three-point touch (50 percent last season), and freshman Kevin Bettencourt may get a push for some minutes this season.
5. Navy (10-20, 5-9)
The five Midshipmen seniors have declared a mission statement for Navy: “Earn the Respect, Earn the Ring.” First things first though, the Midshipmen need to earn wins, which were few and far between last season. They’ll be hard to come by this year as well.
Head coach Don Devoe’s laundry list of needs is emboldened by a dire situation at the point guard position. Demond Shepard graduated, leaving unproven juniors Jason Fernandez and Kwame Ofori and sophomore Taj Mathews.
While a point guard by committee system seems likely early in the season, Mathews with his size and ball-handling skills is probably the strongest candidate to grasp the starting job. While Mathews showed an able-handedness in his limited time last season, he’s not the ideal player to be rebuilding a program around. He averaged just under nine minutes a game in 2001-2002.
As for the five seniors, senior guard Jason Jeanpierre was the only one to contribute significantly last season. The one-time All-Rookie two-guard averaged 10.9 points and three assists per game for Navy. Senior center Francis Ebong led the league with 7.3 boards per contest, but never really established himself as a scoring presence in the low post.
Jeanpierre will get the points, Ebong will get the boards but will the Midshipmen get the wins? Devoe needs just one to reach the 500 mark for career coaching wins. They’ll give him that. But Navy’s thin on depth and talent, and earning the respect looks to be an uphill struggle.
6. Lafayette (15-14, 8-6)
Andrew Pleick and Mike Farrell are the Leopards’ selected co-captains for the 2002-2003 season. They are both said to “dabble in magic” during their spare time. Well the two of them may have to tap into some of that magic if Lafayette is to improve on last season’s surprising third-place finish in the Patriot League.
The Leopards, picked seventh last season and sixth this go-around, swept American and split with Holy Cross during the regular season to prove they can run with the top dogs. The task this season is to quiet naysayers who think that 2001-2002 was more of an optical illusion than anything else.
It speaks volumes that the spiky-haired Pleick was named captain in this, just his second season, with the team. The junior point guard transferred to Lafayette from Drake University and made an impact with 5.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Pleick wasn’t even a starter until midway through the season, but his all-around play and strong defensive presence earned him the starting nod.
Pleick will need to step up after head coach Fran O’Hanlon lost a couple of key players in a backcourt that graduated All-Patriot League shooting guard Brian Burke. In addition, Ben Saxton and Kenny Grant left the Lafayette program, deeming one of the Leopards’ proposed strengths as a possible vulnerability this season. Sophomore shooting guard Justin DeBerry, the team’s second-leading scorer with 11.4 ppg in 2001-2002, flourished after moving to the two-guard from the point, and will need to continue that pace if Lafayette is to be a threat.
Farrell, meanwhile, co-captains the squad as a junior forward who averaged 10 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He’s reliable in the post and is one of the most efficient scorers in the league, having shot 57 percent from the field last season.
Still, a penetrable defense and weak role players will make it difficult for the Leopards to contend in the conference.
7. Lehigh (5-23, 2-12)
A dismal season in 2001-2002 essentially tore apart the last thread of Sal Mentesana’s contract renewal form. The former Mountain Hawks head coach dragged Lehigh through one of its worst seasons on record, and finished with a 43-124 in six seasons at the helm of the program.
The headlines kept calling for a turnaround, but it never came. The Mountain Hawks posted losing streaks of seven and 11 games, and suffered their worst defeat in an 84-42 thrashing at the hands of Colgate on Feb. 6. At times, it seemed Mentesana had his hands tied with what simply was a very poor shooting team.
The lone bright spot for Lehigh was then sophomore, now junior guard Matt Logie. Logie averaged a league-best 17.3 ppg in conference, while shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point land and knocking down 92 percent of his free throws. Logie, a Second Team All-League selection who reached the 1,000-point mark in his sophomore campaign, is without question Lehigh’s go-to guy.
And who’s going to be calling his shots? Well, the Mountain Hawks found a very capable head coach in Billy Taylor. A former assistant at Notre Dame and UNC-Greensboro, Taylor inherits a more seasoned group of players, but just one proven scorer in Logie. He may ask for more offensive production out of sophomore Eric Heil, a 6-8 All-Rookie power forward who led the conference last season with 1.4 blocks per game.
Despite his limited resources, Taylor has not shied away from pitting Lehigh against some very formidable opponents in 2002-2003, with non-conference games against Big-Ten champion Illinois (Nov. 24) and the Big East’s Miami (Dec. 30) looming on the schedule.
It will be interesting to see if the upheaval in coaching personnel translates into some wins for a reeling Mountain Hawks squad. Pre-season pollers didn’t seem to think so, but stranger things have happened.
8. Army (12-16, 6-8)
The outlook is dim- real dim. For starters, the Knights saw their two top scorers graduate from West Point following the 2001-2002 season. Chris Spatola averaged 16.5 points as a shooting guard and was a potent threat from beyond the arc after netting a team-leading 71 three-pointers. Meanwhile, Charles Woodruff brought another 16.2 ppg, led the team with 22 blocks, and pulled 5.4 rebounds per game. Together, the inside-outside duo worked to give Army its most productive Patriot League finish in history.
However, with a 6-8 record, that’s not saying much. But chances for building on last season are slim with the departures of Woodruff and Spatola.
Speaking of Spatola, little brother J.P. was supposed to be one of two starters returning to help usher in first-year head coach Jim Crews. Crews was hired last March to replace Pat Harris, head coach for the Knights since 1997. On Nov. 7, Crews told the media that J.P. Spatola had quit the Army basketball program. And while the Knights did not release any information regarding the reasoning behind the decision, one can do the math.
Both Spatola brothers, who swept through Patriot League honors seemingly on a regular basis last season, are now gone. J.P. had started all 28 games as a freshman in 2001-2002, averaging 9.2 points while dishing out a team-leading 136 assists as a point guard.
Their top three scorers gone, just one starter and eight letter-winners returning, new head coach running the show, things do not look promising for the Knights this season.
Either way, Crews will find out quickly what he’s dealing with as Army opens the season at perennial power Duke on Nov. 23.
All-Patriot League Team:
F senior Boakai Lalugba – Bucknell
G junior Marc Linebaugh – Colgate
G senior Glenn Stokes – American
G junior Matt Logie – Lehigh
F senior Tim Szatko – Holy Cross
G senior Steven Miles – American
Most Valuable Player:
F senior Tim Szatko – Holy Cross
Newcomer of the Year:
F Raimondas Petrauskas – American
Coach on the Hot Seat:
Billy Taylor – Lehigh
He’s got Logie, but Taylor will need to make some major inroads immediately in his first season as head coach, especially given Lehigh’s policy of limiting coaching contracts to a one-year basis with an annual renewal clause.