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Lehigh’s next chapter has been painful of late

January 19, 2014 Columns No Comments

WORCESTER, Mass. – Don’t let Lehigh’s record, or their 61-42 loss at Holy Cross on Saturday, fool you. The Mountain Hawks are 8-11 overall and 1-5 in the Patriot League play, but this isn’t the beginning of the mighty falling. More likely is that it’s the beginning of their next rise, and it’s been a rough one at times.

There is plenty of talent on this team, but much of it is young. The Mountain Hawks start senior point guard Mackey McKnight and junior guard Corey Schaefer, but along with them are freshmen Austin Price and Tim Kempton (son of the former NBA big man) and sophomore Jesse Chuku, who is like a freshman since the native of England was ineligible last season. They have two more freshmen, a sophomore and a junior in the rotation.

Lehigh has gone from being one of the Patriot League’s oldest teams to one of its youngest, and it’s showing right now. There are flashes of how good this team can be, like the five-game winning streak in December and even the start of Saturday’s game at Holy Cross. There are also stretches like some of the comebacks they have made after falling behind in games. Then there are stretches like the one they’re currently in, with five straight losses, and Saturday’s game after the early minutes.

“Were young, a little bit immature, so a lot of things can go both ways,” said McKnight, who struggled on Saturday. “It’s all about experience, and these guys are getting lots of experience.”

Head coach Brett Reed noted that they scored 36 points in the last 36 minutes of the game. Price started off fast, but finished with 13 points, only two coming after the first few minutes. Chuku was all over the court early, but had just two points and six rebounds. Kempton had identical numbers in those two categories. While this team has shown they can defend, it’s tough to win when the ball isn’t going in the basket.

The Mountain Hawks had a great December, going 5-1 with the only loss being a tough one at Bryant by two points on basket in the final seconds. Now in January, they have fallen back to earth, but until Saturday the losses had all been by four points or less. Three have come at home, which is tough to take, but all three have come against teams at the top of the standings (Boston University, Army and American). It’s fair to wonder if some of the freshmen have hit a wall, as often happens; McKnight thinks that’s what’s happened to Kempton. While confidence can be an issue for a lot of teams, it’s more likely to become one for a team like this, and the offense was where that started.

“It was just a matter where we continued to come up empty, come up empty, come up empty, and I think that took a little bit of the wind out of our sails, and you lose a little bit of your focus, resolve and energy in those situations,” said Reed. “For a team that has hit on some hard times, that can be a challenge as well.”

Chuku and Kempton will give this team a solid frontcourt for three years. Chuku was sought after by some higher-level programs and was thought to be a steal for them as he wanted the academics the school offered, among other things. Price can score and his body isn’t fully mature, so he will get better as well. Shane Whitfield is an intriguing prospect who has started nine games as well, and Miles Simelton has some potential at the point.

It’s tough for a guy like McKnight, who has only this year left and is playing like someone who understands the urgency when you’re a senior. He’s led this team through thick and thin and carried them at times. He’s clearly driven to win, and the other guys are as well but don’t know how to get there yet. But he’s taking it well and looking at the challenge as being bigger than this year, even though this is it for him.

“It’s tough at times, but I enjoy the challenge,” said the senior guard. “It’s basketball. You enjoy a different challenge, a new set of rules, a brand new identity. It’s my job to lead these guys and get these guys ready.”

Contending this year is probably not going to happen. The Mountain Hawks are already in a 1-5 hole, and Boston University is going to be a tough team to top. American and Army are right there with BU as well. Before the season is out, though, Lehigh may very well knock off a contender and influence the race, and show more of this team’s potential when the young players grow up.

Reed isn’t putting this all on his players. He knows what he has in terms of experience on the floor and knows a coaching staff can always get better just like players can. There are a lot of areas for concern with this team at both ends of the floor. While they showed promise defensively, there is room to improve there, and the offense is going to have hits and misses as well in large part because of the newness on the team.

“Everybody’s feeling each other out,” said McKnight. “I’m the only senior, so we don’t have a bunch of guys to show them the way and show them how to do things. They’re kind of learning on their own in some aspects.”

Lehigh doesn’t have a nice record to show for what they have done. There will be more adversity along the way, to be sure. There is plenty of talent on the court and on the bench for this team, and a bright future as McKnight is a capable leader for the young players and Reed has proven himself as a coach. How soon this starts to show up in the bottom line is hard to determine. It could come in another month or so, or perhaps not until next season.

But this doesn’t look like the beginning of a long, hard fall for a program that has won a lot. It’s likely just the beginning of the next chapter.

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