With the college football season finale taking place on approximately 17 different networks Monday night, most leagues chose to sit out the evening. For those looking for some college hoops, though, it offered the opportunity to sneak a glance at a pair of programs that have hidden gem written all over them, and have for some time.
Bucknell earned an 82-76 win at Lehigh, keeping it atop the Patriot League with a meaty 5-0 record. (And a salute to CBS Sports Network for showing the game, offering at least one good sports alternative for the evening.) The Bison have road wins over the Mountain Hawks plus upstart Army, and even with the narrow final score Monday are beating league opponents by an average of 17.8 points per game.
The non-conference season was unkind to both squads, with Bucknell going 3-8 (including a tough seven-game losing streak, with none of the defeats by more than 13 points) and Lehigh getting off to a rough 2-9 start. It doesn’t change that these are the Patriot League’s signature programs right now, and that they’ll very likely be in the thick of it at the end of the season.
The two programs have combined to furnish the Patriot League’s last six player of the year award winners, five of its last six regular season champions and four of its past six NCAA tourney representatives. Both have among the more famous NCAA tourney upsets in recent years-the Bison over Kansas in 2005, Lehigh over Duke in 2012-and have recently sent players to the NBA (the Mountain Hawks’ C.J. McCollum and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala).
This year’s respective teams were anticipated to add to that legacy. The Mountain Hawks and Bison came in 1-2 in the Patriot preseason poll, and both feature real stars. Lehigh’s Tim Kempton is the reigning Patriot player of the year, and he scored a career-best 29 with a clinic on low-post play and how a big man can move without the ball.
On the other side, Bucknell has a pure scorer in Chris Hass, who can fill it up with pure efficiency in any way imaginable. Three-pointers, slippery drives, shooting off the dribble, getting to the line-even while playing in a team-oriented attack, the method doesn’t matter, and neither does the opponent. Hass can go off at any time, whether against Army (40 points just over a week ago, with four three-pointers plus 12-for-12 from the line) or North Carolina State (29 in December, including seven three-pointers).
Hass got off to a quiet start but still scored a team-high 21 for the sweet-shooting, unselfish Bison, who made 50.9% from the field- including 12 of 19 (63.2%) in the second half-and had six players with at least two assists in staving off threats from the Mountain Hawks (who we still have to fight hard to not call the Engineers). Average in most areas, Bucknell excels in all aspects of shooting, ranking among the NCAA Division I leaders in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. Lehigh tried zone and it tried man, but with an 11-for-22 performance from deep on Monday plus an incredible 16 of 25 against Holy Cross on Saturday, the Bison are shooting 57.4% from long range in their last two games.
Bucknell has adjusted nicely to a new old coach, with former Pat Flannery top assistant Nathan Davis returning this year after six years at Division III Randolph-Macon. The Bison already have a 1 1/2-game lead over their two nearest competitors (Navy and Loyola) and are at least 2 1/2 games up on everyone else. Though not yet one-third of the way through its league slate, it looks like the small school in Lewisburg, Pa., with the wonderfully charming campus could be home a lot in the conference tournament in March, where higher seeds host every game of the event. It’s a spot where both of these teams have been before frequently in recent years.
- Monmouth has been rightfully showing up as an at-large selection in a number of the mock brackets. The Hawks trailed Fairfield by seven at halftime but roared back behind 24 points from Micah Seaborn to win 86-74.
- Tennessee-Chattanooga rebounded from a road loss at Furman on Saturday, defeating defending Southern Conference champion Wofford 77-69. The Mocs were without star Casey Jones for the ninth straight game as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.
- Sam Houston State improved to 4-0 in the Southland with a 70-63 win over SE Louisiana, while Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is 3-0 in the SLC and now 12-3 overall after a 91-82 win at Lamar. Also, Hampton moved to 4-0 in the MEAC with a 71-65 overtime win over Florida A&M.
- Cal State-Bakersfield continues to have its finest season as a Division I member. The Roadrunners arrived at the game in taxis after their team bus wouldn’t start in some classic mid-January Midwest cold, then moved to 12-5 with a 67-56 win at Chicago State. Aly Ahmed-another of the better players few know of-scored 22 for Bakersfield.
- Virginia Commonwealth guard Jordan Burgess suffered a broken finger on his left hand last week in the Rams’ comeback win over Saint Joseph’s and he missed Sunday’s game against Saint Louis. Burgess-the brother of Bradford Burgess, a leader on VCU’s 2011 Final Four team-had started all 13 games he played this year and is averaging 5.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game for a team that has now won six straight.
- Both are still of the acquired taste variety when it comes to seeing the combatants play as conference foes, but two of the biggest games of the week are on Tuesday at the same time, as Kansas and West Virginia (ESPN2) and Miami (Fla.) at Virginia (ESPNU) are both at 7 p.m. The Jayhawks will be thoroughly challenged with their second straight road game, while Virginia has lost two straight and now faces one of its top challengers in the ACC.
- The game featuring Davidson at Dayton (7 p.m., CBSSN) was considered one of the biggest in the Atlantic 10 entering this year but has lost a little luster. The Wildcats are 10-4 but have sputtered against arguably the four best teams they’ve played, while the Flyers are coming off a disappointing loss at La Salle.
- Akron goes for its 11th straight win when it travels to face MAC preseason favorite Central Michigan, which is still trying to find its mojo.
- Creighton has suddenly surged into contention in the Big East. The Bluejays won at Seton Hall on Saturday and now get a shot at home against Providence (7:30 p.m., FS1).
- It will be interested to see how Southern Illinois responds after being flogged at home by Wichita State on Saturday. The Salukis at least are home for their next one against Illinois State tonight.
- After its hard-fought loss to Kansas, Texas Tech now goes on the road to face Kansas State tonight.
- Another team needing a road rebound is Iowa State, which lost a second half lead against Baylor and now travels to Texas (9 p.m., ESPN2).
- Michigan has struggled in marquee games but can give its season a jolt with a win at home against Maryland (9 p.m., ESPN).
- UNLV interim coach Todd Simon gets put to the test right away as the Runnin’ Rebels host New Mexico (10 p.m., CBSSN).
Have a great Tuesday.