The Patriot League has been on quite a run of late, especially from a competitive standpoint. This season was no different, with a close battle for the top and a four-way tie in the middle of the pack. But the real highlight came in the form of the unexpected league champion, although a decade ago there would have been nothing unexpected about them.
Simply put, Holy Cross went on a tournament run for the ages.
Let’s start by pointing out that the Crusaders were in their first season under head coach Bill Carmody. While no one doubts Carmody’s coaching ability, the hire was seen as an interesting one at least in the immediate; the prior staff recruited players that fit a style in sharp contrast to the way Carmody has coached in his career, and plenty felt the Crusaders should have gone in a younger direction with an up-and-coming assistant. Expectations for this season were diminished, and sure enough, the Crusaders finished ninth with a 5-13 mark.
But there’s more to it than that. The Crusaders didn’t just lose games for much of league play – they were losing consistently by double digits while largely eking out a few wins. They started off 2-1, including an 80-64 win over Boston University, and lost by just two at Navy, but the next seven losses – over a nine-game stretch – were all by double digits and by an average of almost 19 points per game. The two wins were by seven and four points, the latter in overtime. And while they started to lose close games, they lost the final two regular season games by 15 points each, both on the road. They were the only team in the league to not win a league game on the road; even last-place Lafayette won at Army in early January.
As the No. 9 seed, the Crusaders had a tall order to get to the NCAA Tournament, as they would have to win four games, at least three and almost certainly all four on the road. When they won at Loyola by five, it wasn’t a monumental win given that the Greyhounds were the No. 8 seed. The shocker came two nights later, when they went to top seed Bucknell – where their season and Milan Brown’s tenure ended in heartbreaking fashion a year earlier – and beat the Bison 77-72 in a double overtime thriller that included a buzzer-beater in the first overtime.
Next, it was off to Army, a team that had shown potential with their senior core over the last few seasons and looked poised to finally have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. The Crusaders went to West Point and blew out the Black Knights 60-38 to keep the miracle run going. In the championship game at Lehigh, the Crusaders had to survive four shots in the final 20 seconds to hold off the Mountain Hawks 59-56.
Holy Cross had done the unthinkable. From no road wins in the league to four in a row. From ninth place to the NCAA Tournament.
In the bigger picture, this marked the third straight year, and fourth time in five years, that the regular season champion did not win the league tournament. Half of the league had a winning road record in league play, with four of those teams also having a winning road record overall on the season. The league has been in a very good up cycle, though this year was a step back in that regard as the non-league performance left something to be desired. The league’s RPI of 24 out of 32 conferences reflected this. However, the league appears poised to recover quickly as three members of the all-league first team will return, as well as four others from the second and third team.
After the season ended, one school had a coaching change. Zach Spiker left Army to become the head coach at Drexel. Taking over for him is Jimmy Allen, who got the bump from being Spiker’s top assistant.
Quite a bit of history has been made in the league tournament in recent years, but nothing quite like the 2016 Patriot League Tournament. Once again played entirely at campus sites, the tournament began with the home and road teams splitting in the opening round, as No. 7 Navy beat No. 10 Lafayette 78-70 and as noted earlier Holy Cross won at No. 8 Loyola (Md.) 72-67.
The quarterfinals saw the first significant league tournament history made with Holy Cross’ aforementioned upset of No. 1 Bucknell, marking the first time in league history the top seed did not make it to the semifinals. No. 4 Army held off No. 5 Colgate in a dandy 79-72, then No. 2 Lehigh likewise held off a furious rally from Navy 60-57 and No. 6 American joined Holy Cross in winning on the road, coming to Boston to beat No. 3 Boston University 69-64. With this, American was 6-1 in league tournament play under head coach Mike Brennan, including a 4-1 mark on the road.
The semifinals were not close ones. Holy Cross blew out Army 60-38, which at this point made Holy Cross the lowest seed to make the title game and the first lower seed to win three games in the league tournament and the first to win three road games in it. Meanwhile, Lehigh scored 18 of the game’s first 20 points in a 78-62 win over American.
That led to the league championship game at Stabler Arena. Holy Cross never trailed, even leading 25-14 at the half, but the Crusaders were certainly threatened. They led 55-46 with under four minutes left, then the Mountain Hawks scored the next eight to make it a one-point game with 1:21 left. The teams traded free throws, then Holy Cross made two more, to go up 59-56 with 26 seconds left. Lehigh had four chances to tie, but none of them were successful as Holy Cross held on.
Player of the Year: Tim Kempton, Lehigh
Rookie of the Year: Delante Jones, American
Coach of the Year: Nathan Davis, Bucknell
Defensive Player of the Year: Will Kelly, Navy
Eric Fanning, Jr. G, Boston University
Chris Hass, Sr. G, Bucknell
Tim Kempton, Jr. C, Lehigh
Tanner Plomb, Sr. F, Army
Kahron Ross, So. G, Lehigh
Austin Tillotson, Sr. G, Colgate
- Holy Cross became the lowest seed to ever win the league tournament, and also the first team to win four games in the tournament.
- Holy Cross beat Southern in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth win in the tournament by a league member.
- Four teams saw postseason play, with Bucknell reaching the NIT and Boston University and Army reaching the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
- Lehigh was among the nation’s best at shooting from long range.
- Colgate’s Austin Tillotson was in the top ten in seven different statistical categories, including scoring, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and steals, the last of which he led the league in.
What we expected, and it happened: Bucknell didn’t miss a beat under Nathan Davis and won the regular season title. It helped that he was there before as an assistant, but any time there’s a coaching change there is some uncertainty. The Bison won the regular season title all the same.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Lafayette was expected to contend once again, but the Leopards struggled at both ends of the floor and were beaten badly on the glass. The end result was a last-place finish.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Navy was picked last, though the Midshipmen had some talent returning with Tilman Dunbar and Will Kelly. The Middies finished a strong sixth and gave Lehigh all they could handle in the league tournament.
Team(s) on the rise: Holy Cross. The league tournament run was magical, and a sign that this team had come around to the new coaching staff. With a full year under their belt, the Crusaders should enter next season in a far better place, though picking them to contend is a bit much.
Team(s) on the decline: Army. The Black Knights will be fine, but they just graduated a core of players that led a good four-year run. While they never quite fulfilled what the 2013-14 season suggested they were capable of, it was a good stretch that led Zach Spiker to Drexel. Give new coach Jimmy Allen a year to get them going again with a newer cast.
2016-17 Patriot League Outlook
A look at the favorites for next season should start with some usual suspects: Lehigh and Bucknell, with the Mountain Hawks getting a slight edge right now. Lehigh returns the reigning two-time Player of the Year in Kempton, along with all-league guards Austin Price and Kahron Ross to lead the way. Bucknell will certainly miss Chris Hass, but the Bison still have Nana Foulland and Stephen Brown to lead a deep cast.
Boston University and American should be chief among their challengers. The Terriers will miss John Papale and Nathan Dieudonne, but bring back plenty of talent led by Eric Fanning and Cheddi Mosely. We would be wise not to sleep on American, as they lose a guy who meant a great deal in Jesse Reed but bring back the Rookie of the Year. Each year they appear poised to take a step down, but remain more than competitive, and under Brennan they win in the league tournament.
After that, it’s wide open as to who else might contend and how the teams fall. Navy and Colgate lose significant pieces, but also have some players returning who could step into lead roles. Army loses a lot, so they appear poised to take a step back in the standings. Holy Cross’ run in the league tournament may be a sign that they got more comfortable with Carmody’s system, and they could parlay that into a much better season in 2016-17. The duo of Andre Walker and Jarred Jones will give Loyola (Md.) a chance, while Lafayette struggled but returns production and the dean of coaches in the league.
If the last couple of years is any indication, the league will be plenty competitive all the way around. That has been the pattern, and there is little to suggest a significant change in that respect.