The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game.
With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
It's time to tackle the Patriot League.
Despite the gap between the top three teams and the rest of the pack, there was actually a good degree of parity across the league. More specifically, each of the top six teams in the conference had at least one win against either Lehigh or Bucknell.
However, come conference tournament time someone didn't send Holy Cross the memo that they were supposed to fold up and bow out without a fight. That said, the Crusaders made mincemeat of Loyola (Md.), Bucknell, Army and Lehigh en route to its first Patriot League title since 2007.
The reward for the Crusaders' efforts was a play-in game matchup with the Jaguars of Southern University (Southwestern Athletic Conference). A hard-fought 59-55 win gave Holy Cross its ticket to the Round of 64 where it would meet the Oregon Ducks.
Suffice it to say the Ducks did not play nice, and a 91-52 defeat ousted Holy Cross from the tournament.
It would be hard to justify this honor going to anyone other than Lehigh's Tim Kempton Jr. The senior has held the honor for two years running and likely has little intention of letting anyone else get their hands on the hardware.
Mind you, there have only been five repeat winners of the Patriot League POY award. No one has ever won the award three times, but Kempton can try.
The 6-foot-10 pivot from Arizona had 13 double-doubles a year ago while averaging 17.7 points and 9.5 boards for the second-place Mountain Hawks of Lehigh.
Kempton was second in the conference in scoring and rebounding, third in field-goal percentage (55.5 percent), and 12th in free-throw percentage (75.5 percent). Quite a year for a guy who doesn't bring up the ball or dominate a possession on offense.
Being named to the 2017 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award watch list for the country's best center is not a bad start to his senior campaign.
It stands to reason that the best team in the conference might boast the best player, but the Mountain Hawks of Lehigh are a formidable bunch for far more reasons than just their leading big man.
The team ranked first in free-throw and 3-point percentage in the conference, second in field-goal percentage, and third in assists per game. And if bringing back its top four scorers means anything, it could be another banner for Lehigh head coach Brett Reed.
A three-pronged attack from the guard position will be joining Kempton back on campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, one that includes: sophomore Kyle Leufroy (10.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.6 apg); junior Kahron Ross (11.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 6.1 apg); and senior Austin Price (13.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg). Stats aren't everything, but the squad on paper for Lehigh looks mighty tempting as the pick to take the top spot in the conference.
Patriot League Preseason Poll
|Boston University (3)||139|
Despite taking the regular season crown a year ago with a 14-4 record against conference opponents, Bucknell's departures — including senior guard Chris Hass (17.2 ppg) — may prove too great to overcome. Given that the Bison have won the regular-season title in five of the last six years, the 2016-17 season could be a proverbial changing of the guard.
The end result could be an even bigger opening for Lehigh to find a way to the top of the heap.
With Bucknell potentially taking a step back from their perch atop the conference, the Terriers of Boston University could be nipping at the heels of Lehigh into the latter stages of the season.
A trio of guards return for BU, with Eric Fanning (15.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.6 apg), Cheddi Mosely (13.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.0 apg) and Kyle Foreman (9.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.9 apg) back in the rotation for head coach Joe Jones. Cedric Hankerson will be back as well, despite only playing one game and receiving a medical redshirt after tearing his ACL in April, so the Terriers will be able to match guards with the best of them.
Rest assured this team will be fast, tough and tenacious — just like its name implies.
Some Holy Cross fans would cry blasphemy to see their team wind up in the sleeper section of this preview after winning the conference’s automatic bid a year ago. But the fact of the matter is this team wasn’t on many experts' lists as the horse to come out of the Patriot League.
In fact, many had likely written off the Crusaders following a regular season in which the team went 0-9 on the road in-conference. No one is saying that there’s a repeat performance in the works, but some familiar faces are back in the mix, including four of the team’s five leading scorers. The Crusaders also feature a roster that sports seven seniors, so experience and basketball savvy will be back in spades.
|Robert Champion (guard — 6'6")||12.0 ppg||4.8 rpg||1.5 apg|
|Malachi Alexander (forward — 6'7")||11.8 ppg||5.6 rpg||2.8 apg|
|Karl Charles (forward — 6'6")||10.6 ppg||4.2 rpg||2.5 apg|
|Anthony Thompson (guard — 5'10")||7.1 ppg||2.5 rpg||2.5 apg|
Only problem is Holy Cross is an offensively challenged club, to put it lightly — one that ranked No. 325 in the nation in scoring (64.8 ppg) last year. That will likely be an area to address going into the 2016-17 season, but that’s a problem the coaching staff will surely tackle.
Who knows what’s in store for the follow-up.
Despite an uninspiring overall record, Colgate was one of four teams tied at .500 in the Patriot League (9-9 in-conference) last year. The Raiders found their legs in conference play after a tough 4-7 start, finishing the season at 13-17 and beating regular-season champion Bucknell twice along the way.
But Colgate has not had a winning season since the 2007-08 campaign, which means the Raiders are due for an up year (Colgate was 12-6 in league play in the 2014-15 season, but ended up 16-17 overall).
Head coach Matt Langel has something to lean on this year with a trio of juniors returning from a team that ranked second in the conference in 3-point shooting percentage, a group that includes forward Tom Rivard (10.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), forward Jordan Swopshire (10.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and guard Sean O'Brien (8.6 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.4 apg).
Langel's bunch, which is also set to welcome four freshmen into the mix, is likely to be led by the 6-foot-7 Swopshire, the younger brother of former Lousiville and Northwestern standout Jared Swopshire. After transferring from Bradley University and sitting out the 2014-15 season, the younger Swopshire showed the growth he gained from an extra year in a school's program.
Freshman to watch
Colgate's Milan Williams comes to school battle-tested by the rigors of his high school career at Detroit Country Day School. Other notable alumni that came through the school include Shane Battier, JaVale McGee and Chris Webber, to name a few.
No promises that's the trajectory for the young guard, but things do look promising especially given his advanced understanding of how to set up teammates with good looks on offense.
His size (6-foot-3, 210 lbs) should allow him to adjust to the speed of the college game quite nicely, but Colgate won't ask him to handle everything on Day 1. By season's end, he will likely be expected to be a solid contributor though, especially if he begins to get solid minutes in the rotation.
As mentioned earlier, Holy Cross struggled at times to score the basketball. Incoming freshman Tyrone Cohen (6-foot-5, 190 lbs) has a smooth left-handed game that he honed in his time at Christ the King Regional High School in New York — once home to household names like Lamar Odom and Speedy Claxton.
Cohen should mesh nicely with Carmody's Princeton offense given his pass-first mentality, but that should not belie the fact that he can shoot the rock as well and finish in traffic. Although his frame seems a bit slight, more time on campus will likely mean more time in the gym for Cohen.
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