For The Daily Item
Three regular season titles in three seasons is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but I think the Bucknell men’s basketball team would admit the most important part of the season begins Wednesday night at Sojka Pavilion.
Like all mid-major leagues, the only sure way to get into the NCAA Tournament is to win a conference tournament.
Bucknell (25-5) opens the Patriot League Tournament by hosting Navy (8-22) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Bison have beaten the Midshipmen twice this season, but just played Navy on Saturday. Bucknell has won seven consecutive meetings with Navy.
Bucknell became the first team to win 12 Patriot League games in three consecutive seasons. The Bison have gone 37-5 in PL play the past three years, one game behind the best three-year run in school history (2005-07).
However, a second trip in three seasons to the NCAA Tournament is far from guaranteed for the top-seeded Bison. The loss of C.J. McCollum and the struggles of Lehigh made the race for the second seed in the league more interesting than expected in the preseason.
Lafayette (17-14) is the hottest team in the league and owns a sweep of Lehigh and a win at home over the Bison. The Leopards won 10 games in the league for the first time since 2000 and would have the Player of the Year in point guard Tony Johnson in any other non-Mike Muscala season.
Johnson averages 12.7 points, leads the league in assists (4.8), steals (2.0), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1) and — maybe most amazingly, for a guard — field-goal percentage (55.7).
The other two home seeds in Wednesday’s first round are defending Patriot League champion Lehigh and Army. The Mountain Hawks, who entered the season as the co-favorite with Bucknell, struggled since beating the Bison in Lewisburg on Jan. 23.
The Mountain Hawks have lost four games since that time, dropping from first place in the league to losing the tie-breaker for second with the Leopards. Most of the blame can be traced to Lehigh’s struggles shooting the ball.
Lehigh won 10 of its first 11 games without McCollum, but then went into a shooting tailspin. In its three-game losing streak, Lehigh, which had shot 40.1 percent from behind the arc, shot just 16.7 percent (8-of-48) in its losing streak.
When McCollum injured his foot, there was speculation that the standout senior could return for the Patriot League Tournament, but both the school and McCollum have kept his health very close to vest since the injury. Lehigh coach Dr. Brett Reed said Monday that McCollum is getting healthier, but wouldn’t commit on whether McCollum would or wouldn’t play in the tournament.
Army (15-14) needs a win in its first-round game to guarantee its first winning season since the 1984-85 season. It’s the Black Knights first time hosting a Patriot League Tournament game. Kyle Wilson was named Patriot League Rookie of the Year, and Ella Ellis is as hot as any player in the country. The Black Knights’ senior forward is second in the league in scoring at 18.0 ppg. and has six 30-point games in a row.
If Bucknell doesn’t win the tournament, I think one of those three other teams will. If it’s one of the bottom four seeds, either American or Colgate might possess the best chance to win three road games in a row.
American (10-19) had its worst Patriot League season in its history, but is the top 3-point shooting team in the Patriot League. Guard John Schoof leads the league, shooting 51.1 percent from behind the arc and averages 2.4 three-pointers per game. Where the Eagles run into trouble is their depth; Schoof, Daniel Munoz and Stephen Lumpkins are the top three in the league in minutes per game.
Colgate (11-20) lost three of its last four in the league and surrendered a home playoff berth, but the Red Raiders have one of the best players in the league in Murphy Burnatowski. The junior forward averages 17.2 ppg.
Correspondent Todd Hummel covers college sports for The Daily Item. Email comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.