The Patriot League lived up to its billing as one of the most competitive conferences in the country this season. That was expected given that many teams returned a lot from last season. It was also a deep league, evidenced by the numbers and the eye test, all a sign that the league is in a good place right now.
For a lot of the season, the league race saw the ten teams separated by about three or four games. The seven games separating first from tenth at the end of the season is a bit deceiving. As the season went on, you got the feeling that Bucknell was separating themselves a bit from the rest of the pack, although Colgate took them down to the wire for the top spot. The rest of the league was up for grabs all over.
Speaking of Colgate, they were the pleasant surprise. Not only were they no one’s pick to contend before the season, but their non-league performance didn’t lead anyone to expect it, either. They went 3-10, losing five straight at one point and winning consecutive games once. But they opened with a win at Lehigh, then won two more at home for a 3-0 start, and built confidence from there. In fact, they never lost consecutive games in Patriot League play.
Lehigh is another team that was better than the non-league performance might have suggested. The Mountain Hawks had an uneven first couple of months, in part the product of having a freshman start at the point. As league play went on, however, they got better, and Brett Reed’s team surged to a third-place finish.
Just how even the league was didn’t show up in the league tournament until the semifinals. Just one road team won in the first two rounds, but the road team won both semifinal games, setting up an unlikely title matchup.
Beyond that, the league is in a great place. There will be a great deal of talent returning next season, as league members are doing a terrific job recruiting and developing the talent they get on campus. Only one of the top five scorers in the league was a senior this season, while the top three rebounders and ten of the top 15 were all underclassmen, and only one of the top five assist men in the league was a senior this season. A freshman led the league in assists, in fact.
After the season ended, two schools changed coaches, though one was not by their choice. Holy Cross fired Milan Brown after six seasons, replacing him with former Princeton and Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody. Bucknell had to replace Dave Paulsen after he took the head coaching job at George Mason, and they hired former assistant Nathan Davis, who had most recently been the head coach at Randolph Macon, to take his place.
In the first round, Navy won a close battle of the service academies 56-52 over Army, while Holy Cross cruised to a convincing 62-45 win over Loyola (Md.) to advance.
Holy Cross gave Bucknell all they could handle in the quarterfinals, taking the Bison to overtime before succumbing 90-83. Colgate beat Navy 72-62 behind a big double-double from Matt McMullen (18 points, 15 rebounds). The only road team to win in this round was American, who went to Lehigh and knocked off the Mountain Hawks 68-62. Lafayette blew out Boston University 89-64, setting a league tournament record with 16 three-pointers and taking the game over after trailing 14-4 early on.
The semifinals were the surprise round. In league history before this season, only twice had a lower seed won a semifinal game, but this time around both lower seeds won on the road. Lafayette beat Bucknell 80-74, marking the first time the top seed has not reached the championship game. Lafayette did it without getting a single point from a reserve player. American traveled to Colgate and knocked off the Raiders 73-62, taking the game over late in the first half.
The championship game was a good one, even as Lafayette went up by 12 in the second half. American would come back to take the lead with over five minutes left, but the Leopards would regain the lead and have to hold off the Eagles for a 65-63 win for their third league title. Nick Lindner capped a terrific tournament with 25 points, capturing MVP honors in averaging 23.7 points per contest.
Player of the Year: Tim Kempton, Lehigh
Rookie of the Year: Kahron Ross, Lehigh
Coach of the Year: Dave Paulsen, Bucknell
Defensive Player of the Year: Luke Roh, Colgate
Chris Hass, Jr. G, Bucknell
Tim Kempton, So. C, Lehigh
Damon Sherman-Newsome, Sr. G, Colgate
Worth Smith, Sr. F, Navy
Dan Trist, Sr. F, Lafayette
- Lafayette was among the nation’s best teams shooting the ball, especially from long range.
- Part of Lafayette’s success was historic, as they set league tournament records for field goal percentage (60.1 percent) and three-point field goals made (31).
- American reached the semifinals of the league tournament for the 13th time in their 14 years in the league.
What we expected, and it happened: The league was as competitive as can be. Looking at the league before the season, it was hard to feel safe about a lot of projections because it looked like there was a lot of evenness throughout the league.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Army was expected to contend, and their non-league performance was reason to believe they would. They won their last five games, including an overtime win at USC, to finish 9-2. But the Black Knights instead finished last, losing nine of their last ten games. A second division finish in this highly competitive league would not have been a shocker, but last place was.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Holy Cross was expected to contend, especially with the way they finished last season. A mid-season slump derailed them, along with injuries, and they just never really got going from there.
Team(s) on the rise: Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks had some growing pains early, but by the end of this season this team appeared to have an identity and players with clear roles. They should be among the favorites next season.
Team(s) on the decline: Holy Cross. Milan Brown had built up some momentum, and if not for injuries and a midseason slump, they might have kept it going this year. Now Bill Carmody comes in, and that’s a big change, plus the Crusaders will look a bit different personnel-wise.
2015-16 Patriot League Outlook
The Patriot League has been on a good run of late, and that should continue next season, though not without some challenges. Eight of the 15 all-league players return, only one of the top six scorers is gone, and the freshman class was good, but Paulsen’s departure is a hit to the league all the same.
As far as favorites go, the conversation has to begin with Lehigh and Bucknell. The Mountain Hawks grew up as the season went on and return the league’s Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year (and they are also the last two winners of the latter award), along with a nice supporting cast. The Bison have a coaching change, but Nathan Davis knows the landscape and inherits a deep team led by Chris Hass.
Lafayette and Colgate shouldn’t fall off the map. Both lose some key players, but return some as well, with the Leopards looking to have an edge between the two as one of the holdovers is tournament MVP Nick Lindner. Boston University and American will be interesting teams to watch, as the Terriers were a mixed bag this season playing without a true point guard while the Eagles lose a big piece with Pee Wee Gardner’s graduation and also lose John Schoof, though Jesse Reed seems ready to lead the way.
A wild card is Army, a team that still has good talent. Perhaps this past season will prove to be just a slump year, as they will be a very experienced team, and the growing pains of this season may turn into a big year next season.
Holy Cross will look different with a new coach and a different system. Loyola will be more experienced next season as they bring back two All-Rookie selections and could move up in the standings, while Navy loses key pieces.
In all, the league should have another hotly-contested race in 2015-16.