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2016-17 Patriot League Post-Mortem

July 17, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

Bucknell continues to rule the Patriot League, with 2016-17 being the latest iteration. From the earliest days in the league, through several coaches, the Bison have been a consistent powerhouse. They have had plenty of challengers, and for a stretch in the prior decade, they got a real run for their money from Holy Cross. But they have emerged and outlasted everyone, and are now right on Holy Cross’ heels for the lead in league titles.

Holy Cross hasn’t been the same since Ralph Willard left his alma mater in 2009. They went through three coaches in about a year, and while the third of those, Milan Brown, had some success, it wasn’t enough for the administration. Bill Carmody led them on a miracle run through the league tournament in 2016, and they were better this year, but you get the point: the Crusaders haven’t been a serious challenger to be the league’s signature program since Willard’s tenure.

Lehigh, Boston University and American have often looked like the best challengers to Bucknell, and each has had some success. Lehigh has been consistently good, especially under Brett Reed, who will break into the top five in all-time wins by a Patriot League coach early next season, and the C.J. McCollum years were good ones – but Bucknell had a big three that led them during that time, too. The Bison split with Lehigh over those four years in the league tournament. Boston University has a regular season title to its credit and has never finished below .500 in league play since joining in 2013, and the Terriers’ second-place finish this year makes it three times in four years in the league that they have finished in the top three. They hosted the league championship game in their inaugural season in the league, but lost in convincing fashion and have won just one league tournament game since then.

American, meanwhile, has finished outside the top four in the league just four times since joining the league in 2001, and they have won three championships, which ties them with three other schools behind Holy Cross and Bucknell. However, three of those four seasons have come the last three years, bottoming out this season with a ninth-place finish.

Bucknell, however, is the pace-setting program. The Bison lead the way with 11 regular season titles, are now just one league title behind Holy Cross with five, have the only perfect season in league history (in 2005-06), and have won six of the last seven regular season championships. The stumbling block has been the league tournament, as the Bison have cashed in just half of those regular season titles – which have meant homecourt advantage as long as they were alive – for tournament titles. (The league has used campus sites for the entire tournament since the 2006-07 season.) They are so far ahead of the pack in regular season titles that they have won more of those in the last seven years than anyone else, as Holy Cross and Navy have five each.

For that matter, the Bison have not been down very much. In 27 seasons of the league, they have finished below .500 in league play just four times. That speaks to their success as much as anything else.

At this level, hanging on to coaches is often difficult, even with academics making it a little different from others. Pat Flannery retired in the midst of much success a decade ago, but they didn’t miss a beat aside from a very brief slump, aided by an injury-riddled year in 2008-09 right after he left. Dave Paulsen turned them right back into consistent winners, and Nathan Davis, a one-time assistant under Flannery, has continued that, winning two straight regular season titles and two Coach of the Year awards in as many years after Paulsen left for George Mason.

The Bison aren’t going anywhere, either. In 2017-18, they bring back every key player, including the league’s Player of the Year and the tournament MVP, as well as one of the league’s best point guards. They have great depth, something they have often built up methodically, and should be a borderline prohibitive favorite next year.

After the season ended, no schools changed coaches, so there is a great deal of coaching stability in the league right now. That may not be the case in another year, but for now that’s a good place to be – especially when nine teams are chasing one clear pace-setter.

Final Standings

Boston University
Holy Cross
Loyola (Md.)
Army West Point

League Tournament

In stark contrast to last year, when Holy Cross went on an unprecedented run of road wins in the league tournament, only one of the nine games this year saw the road team win.

In the first round, the two games were a study in contrasts. No. 8 Army took care of No. 9 American 74-58, while No. 7 Loyola (Md.) had to hold off No. 10 Lafayette 67-64.

The quarterfinals were also all chalk, with three of the four games being decided by single digits. No. 4 Navy beat No. 5 Holy Cross 49-42 in the lowest-scoring game of the four, while No. 3 Lehigh rallied past No. 6 Colgate 77-72, No. 2 Boston University edged Loyola (Md.) 64-60, and No. 1 Bucknell scored the most decisive win, a 78-62 decision over Army.

The semifinals saw the only road win, and it was a thriller as Lehigh beat Boston University 91-88 in double overtime in a game that saw the Terriers rally from being down by 16. In the other semifinal, Bucknell held off Navy 70-65.

That led to the championship game, another in-state battle at Sojka Pavilion. Bucknell opened the second half by scoring the first 12 points, then led by as many as 18 en route to a convincing 81-65 win over the Mountain Hawks. Zach Thomas was the tournament MVP, scoring 17 points, grabbing nine rebounds and handing out seven assists in the title game.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Nana Foulland, Bucknell
Rookie of the Year: Will Rayman, Colgate
Coach of the Year: Nathan Davis, Bucknell
Defensive Player of the Year: Nana Foulland, Bucknell

All-League Team
Eric Fanning, Sr. G, Boston University
Nana Foulland, Jr. C, Bucknell
Tim Kempton, Sr. C, Lehigh
Zach Thomas, Jr. F, Bucknell
Andre Walker, Jr. G, Loyola (Md.)

Season Highlights

  • Bucknell forward Nana Foulland became the second player in league history to win Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, joining former Bison big man Mike Muscala.
  • Lehigh big man Tim Kempton lead the league in scoring and rebounding, and he completed his career just eight rebounds away from being the league’s all-time leader in career rebounds.
  • Kempton was also the league leader in double-doubles by far with 21 and was one of just two players in the country to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
  • Holy Cross had one of the best turnover margins in the country at +4.9.

What we expected, and it happened: Bucknell was among the favorites in most preseason projections, and the Bison certainly delivered on that as the outright regular season champion. Nathan Davis has ensured that they haven’t missed a beat since Dave Paulsen departed for George Mason, winning two straight Coach of the Year honors.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Navy was picked eighth in the league’s preseason poll, as this was thought to be closer to a rebuilding year. Instead, Ed DeChellis’ team finished fourth and has a solid nucleus that could be poised for an even better year in 2017-18.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: American has been a consistently good program for a long time, one you can usually bank on to at least finish in the top half of the league. They had slumped of late, but this year, they fell back to earth with their 5-13 finish that tied for last place. They have some young talent, though, so they should not be down for long.

Team(s) on the rise: Bucknell and Loyola (Md.) Okay, Bucknell might not make sense, but who else projects to be even significantly better next year besides the Bison? They will be significant favorites to win it all. Loyola, for their part, will return a very good and experienced backcourt, and that can always carry a team far. They could make a nice jump in the standings.

Team(s) on the decline: American. As noted, the Eagles have had a lot of success since they joined the league, but ever since Mike Brennan’s first season – when they went to Boston and won the league championship – it’s been all downhill ever since with just one .500 finish.


2017-18 Patriot League Outlook

Projecting the league next year starts off easily: Bucknell should be heavy favorites to win. The Bison will return the reigning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, the tournament MVP (also a first team all-league player) and two other all-league players, plus the reigning Coach of the Year. The question is who has the best chance to beat them.

It’s not an easy question to answer at first. Both Lehigh and Boston University lose multiple key pieces, and while both will have plenty of talent returning (Lehigh, in particular, returns the league’s best point guard), neither returns as much as Bucknell. While BU loses two all-league players in Fanning and Justin Alston, they bring back one of the league’s top freshmen this past season in Tyler Scanlon and add Walter Whyte, who could be the top newcomer in the league next year. The question then becomes if someone else can leapfrog Lehigh and/or BU. Navy appears to be the top candidate for that, as the Midshipmen will bring back a solid core led by Shawn Anderson, Bryce Dulin and Tom Lacey.

Holy Cross loses Malachi Alexander and Robert Champion, so they have the most to replace among the teams in the middle of the pack. While Loyola (Md.) loses Jarred Jones, they will bring back Andre Walker on the perimeter and Cam Gregory inside, a good base to start from. Colgate could be even more of a sleeper, as the Raiders had the league’s top freshman in Jared Rayman and also bring back a solid core led by Sean O’Brien, Jordan Swopshire and Malcolm Regisford.

Army has some young talent that should get better next year. American had two of the league’s best freshmen this season and could be primed to make a big jump. While Lafayette has been in a slump of late, one would be wise not to count out a good year from them, as Fran O’Hanlon can coach and his team has made runs when you least expect them. This time, they will build around Matt Klinewski.

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