By Kevin Sweeney
The Patriot League has been mostly run by Bucknell since the closing stages of the Pat Flannery era, and that dominance has continued into Nathan Davis’s time as head coach. The Bison have won the conference’s regular season title all 3 seasons Davis has been the head man in Lewisburg. However, this is the first year Davis won’t have his star-laden frontcourt of Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland to help run his club, and the league feels wide-open as a result.
After a sluggish start to Patriot League play, the Mountain Hawks turned on the jets late in the season with an 8-game win streak before stumbling in the conference tournament. Now, they return all but one contributor from last season, though that loss is a big one in Patriot League all-time assists leader Kahron Ross. The backcourt is still loaded, with 3 capable ballhandlers likely to share the floor in Lance Tejada, Kyle Leufroy, and Jordan Cohen, while a young frontcourt that blossomed down the stretch should be even better this season. In a wide-open Patriot League, Lehigh should be seen as the favorite.
Despite losing perhaps the best senior class in program history, the Bison are a legitimate contender at the top of the conference once again. When healthy, Kimbal MacKenzie is one of the best guards in the conference, a high-level shooter and crafty playmaker who wasn’t at full strength for much of last season, while big man Nate Sestina was productive in the shadow of stars Nana Foulland & Zach Thomas and should star with additional floor time this season. Nathan Davis has done a nice job on the recruiting trail in recent years, and that should help soften the blow of losing about 50 points and 20 rebounds worth of production per game.
#3. Boston University
A young team with no scholarship seniors, Boston U has a nice two-year window to contend for a conference title. Without a true point guard, much of the Terriers’ offense runs through sophomore point forward Tyler Scanlon, who did a nice job in that role last season. Pairing Scanlon with a productive big in Max Mahoney should give BU one of the better frontcourt units in the conference, and a pair of versatile wings who starred as freshmen in Javante McCoy and Walter Whyte have major promise. If Joe Jones hit a couple more home runs in his 2018 class, the Terriers could be atop the conference for a long time.
Matt Langel finally broke through in his 7th season at Colgate, winning 19 games (the most in the program’s D1 history) and reaching the Patriot League title game. Losing a pair of double-digit scorers in Jordan Swopshire and Sean O’Brien won’t be easy, but Langel has a solid core in place that should keep the Raiders in contention. Stretch 4 Will Rayman is one of the conference’s best players, an elite shooter and solid glass-eater that makes life easier for his teammates. Sophomore Jordan Burns was outstanding last season, and should be the full-fledged lead guard for this club with O’Brien gone. The x-factor here is the eligibility and health of Northwestern transfer Rapolas Ivanauskas. A former top-100 recruit, Ivanauskas missed all of the last 2 seasons with shoulder injuries and is applying for a waiver to play right away. If immediately eligible and back to his high school form, he’d be a steal for Langel’s club, with a lot of skill for a big man who could play the 4 of the 5.
#5. Holy Cross
The Crusaders virtually run it back from a 12-19 season, with the main reason for optimism coming from the strong rookie campaigns by a trio of freshmen in Austin Butler, Jacob Grandison, and Caleb Green. Like any Bill Carmody team, Holy Cross is going to grind it out, winning with the Princeton offense that prioritizes cutting and efficient offense but not the 3-point shot. If one of the now-sophomore core can become a go-to offensive option, the Crusaders could be a dark horse.
Balancing that the Eagles were one of the nation’s worst basketball teams last season and that they return a ton of production from last season is always a tough thing to do in preseason polls. Preseason POY Sa’eed Nelson is already one of the league’s best despite only being a junior, while wing Sam Iorio was also excellent as a freshman and should contend for all-league honors. That type of pairing should keep you in a whole lot of basketball games, but team around them has to provide more support on both ends. Freshman big man Josh Alexander should help a frontcourt that was brutally overmatched last season, as should the return of Mark Gasperini, who missed last season. John Brennan needs his club to show significant improvement this season or he may be looking for a new job this spring.
I’m always a big fan of multi-ballhander backcourts, and that’s exactly what Jimmy Allen has in his pairing of Thomas Funk and Jordan Fox. Both are high assist guys who take care of the ball, and have now played a significant amount of basketball in their collegiate careers. Unfortunately, the Black Knights were a mess on defense and on the boards last season, and it’s a bit disconcerting that Army showed no improvement last season despite bringing everyone back.
Ed DeChellis’ solid defensive schemes have played well in the Patriot League, and last year was no different with the best scoring defense in the conference. They’ll need that defense to remain sturdy this season without their top two shot-creators from 2017-18. Sophomore Cam Davis could be ready for a breakout season.
While they weren’t able to turn Matt Klinewski’s senior season into a winning one, one clear positive came out of the Leopards’ 2017-18 campaign. Frank O’Hanlon found his backcourt of the future in Alex Petrie and Justin Jaworski, and that duo has to make Lafayette feel good about its chances to contend in the future. This season might be a bit rough as they learn to play without Klinewski, who was a major offensive focal point for the last 3 seasons.
#10. Loyola (MD)
The Greyhounds replaced G.G. Smith with Tavaras Hardy this offseason after Smith struggled to build any sort of momentum in the post-Jimmy Patsos era at Loyola. Hardy is an intriguing hire: he has some ties to the DMV recruiting hotbed from his time at Georgetown, but perhaps more importantly understands how to work at a high-academic school. Hardy played at Northwestern, worked on Wall Street for a short time after his playing career ended, then worked on the staffs of Northwestern, Georgetown, and Georgia Tech before getting his first head coaching gig. For a program that left a better conference in the MAAC for a higher-academic league in the Patriot, hiring a guy who understands that type of program was critical.
As for his team this year, Hardy inherits some solid guard talent in Isaiah Hart, Chuck Champion, and Andrew Kostecka. Things are dicey in the frontcourt though, as a unit that wasn’t a strength last season loses by far its best player in Cam Gregory. I’m a fan of the Hardy hire, but it will take time to get this roster where it needs to be to compete with Bucknell and Lehigh.
All-Conference First Team:
- Sa’eed Nelson– American (18.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, .443/.292/.681)
- Lance Tejada– Lehigh (14.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, .434/.453/.759)
- Kimbal MacKenzie– Bucknell (8.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.5 apg, .351/.350/.966)
- Will Rayman– Colgate (14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.2 apg, .447/.418/.807)
- Pat Andree– Lehigh (12.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.7 apg, .458/.429/.852)
Player of the Year: Lance Tejada (Lehigh)
From a pure statistical perspective, Nelson is the pick here. If American finishes in the top 5 of the conference, I have little doubt he’ll win this award. But given the track record of stars on bad teams not winning awards, I decided to give my preseason nod to Tejada, who should have an excellent senior season. An absurdly good shooter, Tejada will have a bigger role in creating offense for the Mountain Hawks with Kahron Ross gone, and I expect him to thrive.
Breakout Player: Jimmy Sotos (Bucknell)
Sotos showed promise in his freshman campaign despite being blocked for minutes. Capable of playing either guard spot, Sotos is a solid shooter who should pair nicely with Kimbal MacKenzie in the backcourt.
Newcomer of the Year: Nic Lynch (Lehigh)
If eligible, my choice here would be the aforementioned Ivanauskas. But given the uncertainty, I went with Lynch, a talented big man who had an offer from Washington but chose Brett Reed’s Mountain Hawks. It might be tough for him to find early frontcourt minutes, but he’s definitely a high-end long term piece for Lehigh.