It's tough to ignore what just happened in our little corner of the college basketball world. It's also tough to imagine a bigger 10- or 12-day stretch than the Patriot League just enjoyed. Sunday's losses by Bucknell and Lehigh do nothing to diminish it.
Rewind quickly to the first Wednesday in March and the thriller those two played in the Patriot League final. In the 22-year history of league title games, if it wasn't the best, it is probably top two or three. It was a game between clearly the two best teams featuring, without question, the two best players who played just like that. Mike Muscala and C.J. McCollum combined for 59 points in a performance that left everyone in attendance wanting more.
What happens after that is usually pretty stock, however. The champ goes on to the NCAA tournament, gets about a 15 seed, takes on a big-name program, takes its beating and parting gifts and returns home by Saturday morning.
That has happened 86 percent of the time in the league's history. This, however, was not one of those times. In fact, for the first time in league history three teams made the postseason with American earning a spot in the CIT, although the Eagles' lost their opening game. So Bucknell and Lehigh carried the torch and it burned bright last week.
In a tournament that typically builds matchups based on geography, there were plenty of potential destinations for Bucknell before the NIT pairings were announced, including Drexel, Seton Hall and St. Joe's -- all manageable bus rides. Instead, the Bison got shipped all the way across the country to Arizona. That announcement came moments after Lehigh found out it would be playing Duke, perhaps the biggest name in college basketball, in Greensboro, N.C., which is closer to Duke's campus than Lehigh is to Bucknell.
If that didn't have all the markings of "Glad you came, now take your ball and go home," nothing really does.
No big deal, Bucknell just goes into Arizona, a team that was a win from the Final Four at this point last year, and wins by 11. Wasn't an aberration, the Bison led early by double digits and, except for hiccup when Bryan Cohen picked up his second foul, Bucknell was in control for 38 minutes or so.
Then a couple days later, Lehigh does the same thing. With the Blue Devils looking like they were stuck in cement, McCollum dribbled through and around and even over them for a couple of jams. Duke goes home, Lehigh, and it's new-found hoard of Tobacco Road fans wearing Carolina Blue (and those from the Lehigh Valley who actually noticed they play basketball there) go on.
Funny thing about those two wins: Neither was a fluke. Muscala was by far the best player on the floor against Arizona and Bucknell was probably better one through nine. Same for Lehigh, and even Mike Krzyzewski admitted that Lehigh had the best player in McCollum. And while the Blue Devils were without Ryan Kelly, Lehigh never wavered and was in control for the most part.
Both teams' seasons ended within hours of one another Sunday, but they each had a chance in the final minute. Bucknell missed a possible game-tying 3 on the road at Nevada, while the Mountain Hawks, despite a poor shooting performance in the second half, were within five with 30 seconds left against Xavier.
That part stinks. It does because both Bucknell and Lehigh were probably good enough to still be playing.
But what those two teams did in the last 12 days was get the Patriot League brand out there. When Bucknell beat Kansas in the NCAA tournament and Holy Cross beat Notre Dame in the NIT in 2005, it was the high mark for the league until this weekend. What I think makes this year's showing better is star-power.
Back in 2005, the stars were coaches Pat Flannery and Ralph Willard. When Chris McNaughton hit the shot to beat Kansas, when CBS heads came knocking to find some guys to profile, they had a tough choice between the big German, or Kevin Bettencourt or Abe Badmus or a couple of others.
Now there are two legit stars in McCollum and Muscala who got boatloads of national ink, which does nothing but help the league and the programs in it. Muscala scored 45 points and grabbed 24 rebounds in the two NIT games, that on the heels of going for 30 and 14 in the league final. McCollum dropped 30 on Duke -- 30 for crying out loud! You can probably count the number of people who have done that to a Krzyzewski team on one hand.
The Patriot League has always been a one-bid league and people have never thought twice. Even in 2006, when Bucknell was nationally ranked, fear was if the Bison didn't win the conference tournament final, they could get left out.
More than likely the league always will be a one-bid league and it probably should. But in the last six years the league owns three NCAA tournament wins and the representative has been far from a pushover for the most part.
Bucknell and Lehigh return eight starters between them next year, including Muscala and McCollum. So they, and the league, aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Sports editor Bill Bowman covers college sports for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or message him at twitter.com/williambbowman.