For The Daily Item
Two of the youngest teams in the Patriot League visited Sojka Pavilion back in January both unsure of what lie ahead during the meat of the conference season.
Both Army and Lafayette made unsuccessful trips to Lewisburg on consecutive Saturday nights, losing by 21 and 15 points, respectively.
Fast forward to March and the Black Knights and Leopards very clearly passed Lehigh as the teams with the best chance to knock off Bucknell.
The Black Knights gave the Bison all they could handle in Saturday afternoon’s semifinal.
Wednesday night it’s second-seeded Lafayette’s turn as the Leopards face Bucknell at 7:30 p.m. in the Patriot League Tournament championship game with a berth in the NCAA Tournament on the line.
Lafayette might be the hottest team in the league. The Leopards, led by point guard Tony Johnson, are 11-2 overall, 10-2 in the Patriot League since that loss to the Bison sent them to a 8-12 overall record and 1-2 in the league.
Since that game the Leopards have beaten Lehigh three times, including Saturday in the semifinals, and also beat Bucknell on a last-second shot in Easton.
Lafayette is a lot like the Bison in one respect. Bucknell takes advantage of the matchup problem that standout center Mike Muscala provides and the Leopards have a player like that in their own right with Johnson.
Johnson had yet to average double figures in his career entering his senior season, but he played well enough last year to earn a second-team all-Patriot League nod despite playing in just 12 games due to injury.
Johnson made the leap this season. He’s second on the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game. He leads the Patriot League in assists (4.8 per game), steals (64) and field-goal percentage (55.7).
Sophomores Seth Hinrichs and Dan Trist have also made great strides this season. Hinrichs, a 6-foot-7 guard, leads the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game, after averaging eight as a freshman. Trist, a forward from Australia, is third on the team at 12.6 points per game after scoring five points per game in his first season.
DEARLY DEPARTING: The contributions Bucknell has received from its senior class have been well-chronicled, but when the 2013-14 Patriot League season begins the Bison will not be the only team that will look much different.
This class of graduating players might be the best the Patriot League has ever produced. It features two of the greatest players in its history in Muscala and Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum.
Of course, Johnson and Levi Geise at Lafayette, along with Malcom Mackey at Lehigh have made names for themselves as well.
Army coach Zach Spiker got emotional in his post game press conference after his team’s season ended in a loss Saturday at Bucknell. Spiker’s three-man senior class took a huge leadership role this season at West Point, helping the Black Knights to their first winning season in 19 years.
Ella Ellis was the second-leading scoring in the Patriot League, but Spiker wanted to make it known how much help Ellis, center Jordan Springer and injured guard Jason Pancoe helped him change a culture of losing at Army.
Correspondent Todd Hummel covers college sports for The Daily Item. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.