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Patriot League Preview

November 11, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



Patriot League Preview

by Steve Sheridan

At the beginning of last season, it looked like Holy Cross would take the League title, and sure enough they did. It seemed predestined (by a higher being hanging out in Worcester, perhaps), that the Crusaders would waltz into the NCAA Tournament. Coming into this season; however, there does not appear to be a clear-cut favorite coming out of the gate.

What can be clearly seen is that this year may very well be the year of the guard in the Patriot League. With Holy Cross’ Jave Meade, Colgate’s Mark Linebaugh and Lafayette’s Justin DeBerry all returning this season, it looks to be a guard-oriented year. Even with the graduations of American’s Steven Miles and Glenn Stokes, Lehigh’s Matt Logie and Zlatko Savovic and Lafayette’s Andrew Pleick, the guard position looks to be as strong as ever in 2003-2004. With each team feeling the sting of graduation, it looks to be a wide-open year in the Patriot League. Right now, it looks as if Colgate and Holy Cross are to be the early favorites for the league title, but Lafayette’s squad is not to be overlooked. As has been proven in the past, anything can and usually does happen over the course of a season, and I expect this season to be no different.

Preseason All-Conference First Team
Jave Meade, Guard, Holy Cross
Mark Linebaugh, Guard, Colgate
Justin DeBerry, Guard, Lafayette
Kevin Blankenship, Guard, Bucknell
Nate Lufkin, Center, Holy Cross

Conference MVP
Jave Meade, Guard, Holy Cross

Team Capsules (In Order of Projected Finish)

Colgate (14-14, 9-5, 3rd)

The Raiders look poised to seriously challenge for the Patriot League title this season, as Colgate returns its top two scorers in senior co-captains Mark Linebaugh and Howard Blue from a team that finished with a .500 overall record (14-14), tying for second in the league with a 9-5 record. Linebaugh, a second-team all-Patriot Leaguer, heads a squad that loves to shoot the three-ball, including all-rookie team member Alvin Reed and junior Keith Williams, who missed half of last season due to a knee injury. With the graduation of point guard Dave Hardy, look for Linebaugh to direct the offense much more so than last season. Blue, along with fellow forward junior Andrew Zidar, gives Colgate a much needed inside presence.

It was not offense but defense that kept Colgate from doing better in the conference, as they were second-to-last and last, respectively, in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense. If the team can improve its defense and keep up the offensive attack, the Raiders will be a serious threat to Holy Cross’ stranglehold on the league title. Colgate’s non-league schedule includes Ivy League powers Princeton and Harvard, as well as the squad’s yearly jaunt to Syracuse to take on the defending national champions at the Carrier Dome.

Holy Cross (26-5, 13-1, 1st)

Last season, the Crusaders were expected to coast through their Patriot League schedule to another league title, and they didn’t disappoint, going 13-1 in the league (26-5 overall). This season; however, looks to be a little more difficult for Ralph Willard’s squad. For starters, the Cross is losing the last three Patriot League Players of the Year, in Tim Szatko (twice) and 2003 honoree Patrick Whearty. Along with guard Brian Wilson, the trio was Holy Cross’ three leading scorers, dropping a combined average of 35 points per game. Junior center Nate Lufkin and senior guard Jave Meade will be asked to step up and fill the large void left by the three. Meade was the catalyst of the Crusader offense all season long and played superb defense as well, while Lufkin showed what he is capable of by playing arguably his best game on the biggest stage, contributing greatly to the Cross’ near upset of Marquette in the NCAA Tournament. Junior Neil Fingleton, all 7-feet 6-inches of him, will also get a chance to contribute to the team in Whearty’s absence. With Meade at the helm, nobody doubts whether Holy Cross can make it a four-peat, but it is known that the road will certainly not be quite as easy as last year.

Lafayette (13-16, 6-8, 6th)

The Leopards should be much improved this season under Fran O’Hanlon, graduating only one senior while keeping the nucleus of last year’s team, which finished sixth in the league last season (6-8, 13-16 overall) intact, including the team’s top four scorers. The team reached the tournament semifinals last season behind the strong play of second-team all-Leaguer Justin DeBerry, who averaged over 16 points a game, and fellow senior Winston Davis. This duo should prove to be one of the best guard tandems in the Patriot League, as DeBerry looks to top the league in scoring after placing second this past season. What the team seeks this season is consistency from its starters, hoping to avoid the alternation of short winning and losing streaks throughout the season as tended to be the case last year. Senior center Rob Dill, the league’s top shot-blocker, and senior forward Mike Farrell should establish Lafayette once again with a solid tandem under the boards. The team’s non-league schedule is packed with Ivies, including trips to Penn, Princeton and Columbia.

Bucknell (14-15, 7-7, 5th)

The Bucknell Bison may very well be the most experienced team in the conference heading into the 2003-2004 season, as its roster is packed with seven seniors. This experience will help counteract the loss of four-year starting point guard Dan Blankenship and the team’s leading scorer and league’s leading rebounder, Boakai Lalugba, who was arguably one of the most dominating players in the league last season. Blankenship and Lalugba were two main reasons why Bucknell was able to stay even in the league last year (7-7) for a fifth place finish, while almost reaching the .500 mark overall (14-15). Patriot League Rookie of the Year Kevin Bettencourt will be one of coach Pat Flannery’s main offensive weapons, while senior guards Matt Quinn (co-captain) and Chris Rodgers will try and fill the large shoes of Blankenship. The guard duo will be sure to try and improve on an offense that ranked second-to-last in the conference last season, which offset the second-best defense in the league. The Bison have put together a competitive non-conference schedule, including Michigan State, who made the Elite Eight last year, as well as Ivy League champion Penn, and look to make a serious run at the league championship for all those seniors.

American (16-14, 9-5, 2nd)

The Eagles will try to return to the Patriot League championship game for the third consecutive year under coach Jeff Jones, but will have to do so without their two leading scorers from last year, who were considered by many to be the best guard tandem in the League. With Steven Miles (all-Patriot League first-team) and Glenn Stokes, two key figures in the Eagles’ second place finish last season (9-5 league, 16-14 overall), both leaving, American has a 32-point hole in its offense that needs to be filled. Senior guard Andres Rodriguez and senior forward Jernavis Draughn will be counted on to help supply points for the Eagles this season, as well as all-rookie team selection Raimondas Petrauskas, as the team hopes to finally win a League title, having come close the past two seasons. With a tough non-league schedule, including match-ups at Maryland and Notre Dame, American should be able to see very quickly how it matches up with some of the better teams in the country, not just the Patriot League.

Lehigh (16-12, 8-6, 4th)

Nobody saw the Mountain Hawks coming in coach Billy Taylor’s first year on the job in Bethlehem, when they stormed to the top of the Patriot League before fading to fourth place by season’s end. The team ended up with a respectable 8-6 league mark, while finishing four games above .500 for the whole season (16-12). The team loses star guards Matt Logie and team MVP and all-league performer Zlatko Savovic to graduation, and so will be counting on senior co-captains Ra Tiah and Austen Rowland to assume the vacated positions. Rowland enters his first year of play for Lehigh, having transferred from Delaware two seasons ago, and will be counted on to provide a viable scoring threat from the outside. All-rookie selection Mitch Gilfillan is also expected to chip in, as the sophomore proved himself a sharpshooter from downtown last season, connecting on 52% of his shots from beyond the arc. As is becoming custom with Patriot League teams, Lehigh has a tough non-conference schedule as well, highlighted by a contest against perennial powerhouse UConn in Storrs, CT.

Navy (8-20, 4-10, 7th)

The Midshipmen of Navy didn’t have the best of years last season (seventh place in the league with a 4-10 record, 8-20 overall), and after graduating its top two players, the team doesn’t appear to have much to look forward to in the 2003-2004 season. With their top four scorers all departing from Annapolis, the Midshipmen will field an inexperienced lineup for the upcoming campaign, and coach Don DeVoe hopes to bring out the best of the bunch. Sophomore guard David Hooper was named to the league’s all-Rookie team, and hopes to once again provide a legitimate scoring threat from the perimeter. Senior guard Kwame Ofori also showed some promise after taking over at point guard, and the team will be looking to him for some much-needed senior leadership when it comes to scoring. With the state of Navy, it looks as if the annual Army-Navy contests, aside from the bragging rights in the natural rivalry of the two academies, may once again also decide who gets to stay out of the Patriot League cellar.

Army (5-22, 0-14, 8th)

If you’re optimistic, you can say that the Black Knights couldn’t get any worse when it comes to Patriot League play. After going winless in their conference schedule (0-14) and winning only five games all year (5-22) in coach Jim Crews’ first season at the helm, Army must find some way to improve the league’s last-ranked offense from last season. This must also be done without the services of junior guard Andy Smith, the team’s leading scorer who left the Black Knight basketball program in April. Senior guard Sean O’Keefe, the team’s second-leading scorer last year, will play a big role in filling that hole, which will have to be filled and overflowed if Army is to be at all competitive in the Patriot League this season. In early December, the team will travel to Storrs, CT to take on UConn, who will most certainly challenge for the NCAA title this season, and if the squad could even remotely hang with the Huskies, it may bode well for its chances of a Patriot League rebound. Those chances; however, may be slim at best.

I can make no such predictions as were made last year, so I can only speculate that the team that lost the least due to graduation, Colgate and Lafayette, will be near the top of the standings. Ralph Willard will always have his Holy Cross team ready for action, so the three-time defending league champions certainly cannot be ruled out by any means. And as was the case with Lehigh, a team could always come up from nowhere to take down the expected leaders. In the Patriot League, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

     

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