By Kevin Sweeney
I’m not sure if there is a conference with a clearer favorite than the Patriot League. Coming off a season in which they went 26-9 and 15-3 in the Patriot League before nearly stunning West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, Bucknell is the near-unanimous pick among college basketball analysts to claim the conference title. Which teams are best suited to challenge the Bison? I break that down here:
- Bucknell- As I mentioned at the top, this team appears to be on a whole different level than the rest of the Patriot League. Nana Foulland and Zach Thomas form one of the better frontcourt duos in all of college hoops, anchoring a group that returns all 5 starters from a season ago.
- Navy- A strong, experienced backcourt led by a pair of seniors in Bryce Dulin and Shawn Anderosn will keep this Navy team in a lot of games. However, Ed DeChellis’ team will have to even out things from a season ago, in which they had a pair of 3+ game losing streaks but also a run in which they won 10 of 11.
- Boston University- This is probably the second-most talented team in the conference behind Bucknell, and BU brings in a strong mid-major class featuring 3-star wing Walter Whyte. The big key is Cedric Hankerson, the talented scoring wing who was never really himself last season after missing most of 2015-16 with a knee injury.
- Lehigh- The Mountain Hawks lose one of the best players in the history of their program in Tim Kempton. However, they still have one of the better pure point guards at the mid-major level in Kahron Ross, as well as a solid scoring wing in Kyle Leufroy, to carry the load.
- Loyola (MD)- Loyola was an absolutely fascinating team a season ago, earning wins over Bucknell, Lehigh, and Boston U but stumbling in home games against Lafayette and American. Andre Walker is the best guard in the conference, but he’ll need help and consistency from the rest of his team if the Greyhounds are going to make noise this season.
- Colgate- This is a team that many have pegged as a dark horse in the Patriot League this season. All five starters return for the Raiders, including sophomore stretch big and all-conference-type player Will Rayman. It has been since the 2007-08 season that Colgate finished a season over .500, but that’s certainly not out of the question this season.
- Army- Last season was always going to be a bit of a rebuild for Army, losing all 5 starters and their head coach. That rebuild seems to be on the right track, as in 2016-17 the Black Knights found their point guard and big man of the future in Thomas Funk and Matthew Wilson, respectively.
- Holy Cross- The Crusaders lose their top two scorers from last season’s club in Robert Champion and Malachi Alexander. They’ll need a pair of leaders on this team in juniors Karl Charles and Pat Benzan to take the next step in their games.
- American- It’s nearly impossible for mid-major clubs to win when their top two players are freshmen, but that’s what American dealt with last season. That said, that duo of Sa’eed Nelson and Mark Gasperini should be a handful for teams to deal with this season.
- Lafayette- The Leopards have one of the more underrated bigs at the mid-major level in Matt Klinewski, but the rest of this roster gives me nothing to get excited about. This team may be headed to the cellar once again.
The class of this league by far this season, Bucknell is one of the top potential Cinderella teams to watch in 2017-18. They run efficient offense, play solid defense, and have a wealth of experience with nearly the entire rotation returning. Nana Foulland is one of the best big men in the country, a guy who uses his combination of strength, length, and skill level to dominate in the paint while also being a terrific rim protector. He’s complimented by Zach Thomas, a point forward who shoots the 3 well and is an outstanding passer. Meanwhile, a point guard like Stephen Brown gets overlooked despite averaging over 11 ppg and posting a 2.65 assist-to-turnover ratio while shooting over 40 percent from 3. This team has a chance to be in the at-large bid discussion if they can pull off some upsets in their loaded non-conference schedule.
Dark Horse: Loyola (MD)
The combination of a talented guard like Andre Walker who can take over games and a rim-running big in Cam Gregory is a dangerous one. The key for the Greyhounds is hitting more shots (especially from the outside) and finding some pieces to step up in the frontcourt behind Gregory with Jarred Jones graduating. If they can find one guy to make the next step in their game, the Greyhounds could be a factor near the top of the conference.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Andre Walker (Loyola MD)
- G: Kahron Ross (Lehigh)
- G: Stephen Brown (Bucknell)
- F: Zach Thomas (Bucknell)
- F: Nana Foulland (Bucknell)
Player of the Year: Nana Foulland (Bucknell)- Foulland has been touched on a lot in this preview, but the defending conference POY and DPOY seems all but certain to repeat in both categories this season. Foulland is pretty much everything you want in a mid-major big man, and he’s a guy no team at any level wants to have to face.
Breakout Player of the Year: Pat Andree (Lehigh)- A prototypical stretch 4, Andree is a lights-out shooter who showed a great deal of promise as a freshman. He’ll have to get a bit more physical in the post to improve his all-around game, but I expect his role on offense to increase in a big way with the amount of production that Lehigh loses from a season ago.
Newcomer of the Year: Walter Whyte (Boston University)- Whyte was a huge get for Boston U, choosing the Terriers over multiple A10 and other solid mid-major offers. At 6-6 with a game ready body, Whyte has the ability to play 3 different positions as well and create mismatches. Whyte is the type of player that could definitely blossom into a star at Boston University.