By Jesse Kramer
The Patriot League’s reputation has steadily grown over the past two seasons with Lehigh and Bucknell’s success. Lehigh won a NCAA tournament game two seasons ago, and last year Bucknell nearly knocked off Butler as a No. 11 seed. More importantly, both schools had players selected in the 2013 NBA Draft (C.J. McCollum from Lehigh, Mike Muscala from Bucknell).
The Patriot League has a different look now with the additions of Boston University and Loyola-Maryland, especially since both will contend for the conference title in their inaugural season.
In fact, Boston looks like the early favorite for the conference’s NCAA tournament bid, although long-time Patriot League members Lafayette and Lehigh should not be too far behind.
1. Boston University
Boston may be the newcomer in this league, but it is still the team to beat. Defending champion Bucknell lost a lot of pieces, and fellow contenders Lafayette and Lehigh lost enough that they are not quite on the same level as Boston.
In the America East last season, the Terriers finished 11-5 but were ineligible for the conference tournament because of their impending realignment. Still, they earned a bid to the CIT.
With the return of all five starters, Boston will be a top 25 mid-major this season. D.J. Irving, who averaged 14.5 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 36.5% on three-pointers, will be one of the leaders in the Patriot League’s scoring title race.
Sophomore point guard Maurice Watson Jr. (pictured) should lead the league in assists after averaging 5.4 dimes per game as a frosh.
Lafayette made a push for the conference title last season, finishing 10-4 and losing to Bucknell in the tournament championship game. The Lions lost star point guard Tony Johnson and starting power forward Levi Giese, but three starters plus a handful of role players return to keep them in the title race.
Junior Seth Hinrichs, a 6’7″ shooting guard who started all but one game last season, led the Lions in scoring last season with 14.5 points per game. Shooting better than 46% from the field and 45.6% from beyond the arc, Hinrichs ranked in the nation’s top 100 in true shooting percentage and earned second-team All-Patriot League honors.
He is joined in the backcourt by fellow junior Joey Ptasinski and sophomore Bryce Scott. The two combined for more than 100 three-pointers last year.
Junior Dan Trist, who averaged 12.4 points on 53.2% shooting, will start in the frontcourt.
The C.J. McCollum era is over in Bethlehem, and Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner are gone as well. Seniors Mackey McKnight and Anthony D’Orazio return to form a solid, experienced backcourt, with juniors Corey Schaefer and Stefan Cvrkalj serving as support.
McKnight, who averaged 11.9 points and 4.9 assists, was named to the Patriot League’s second team.
But in the frontcourt, Lehigh returns only Justin Goldsborough and Conroy Baltimore, neither of whom played even 12 minutes per game last season. The way those two respond to receiving an integral role will determine whether the Mountain Hawks can actually challenge for the league title.
4. Loyola (MD)
Loyola has a very formidable squad in its first season as a member of the Patriot League.
Junior R.J. Williams and senior Dylon Cormier, who was an all-MAAC player last season, form one of the conference’s best backcourts, while Jordan Latham anchors the frontcourt.
Williams made major improvements during his sophomore season, averaging 4.9 points, four assists, and 1.6 steals per game. In 17 games played, he made seven of 18 three-pointers. Cormier was a consistent scorer for the Greyhounds last season, scoring more than 10 points in all but three outings.
Loyola-Chicago transfer Denzel Brito joins Williams and Cormier after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. As a sophomore in 2011-12, Brito averaged seven points and 3.5 assists.
Army graduated leading scorer and all-Patriot League guard Ella Ellis, but all its other key players from last season are back for 2013-14.
The Black Knights, who went 16-15 for their first winning season in 28 years, had two players on the conference’s all-rookie team, including Rookie of the Year Kyle Wilson. Wilson is the team’s top returning scorer with 13 points per game, and he is also their best shooter at 41.6% from beyond the arc. However, Kyle Toth, the other star freshman, left the program in July.
Wilson will be joined by Dylan Cox and Josh Herbeck in the backcourt while Larry Toomey and Kevin Ferguson man the post.
Bucknell has gone to the NCAA tournament two times in the last three seasons, but the Bison will most likely not return in 2014. Graduated are starters Mike Muscala, Joe Willman, and Bryson Johnson, but they do return all-Patriot League guard Cameron Ayers (pictured) Ayers averaged 12.4 points and 4.0 rebounds and shot 39.6% from long range.
With the returns of Ryan Hill, Ryan Frazier, Steven Kaspar, and graduate student Brian Fitzpatrick, Bucknell has a deep, veteran backcourt. However, their frontcourt remains a huge question mark.
7. Holy Cross
Holy Cross returns a solid core with Dave Dudzinski, Justin Burrell, Cullen Hamilton, and Malcolm Miller.
Dudzinski made the All-Patriot League second team with averages of 15.2 points and 6.6 rebounds, and this season he should improve to the first team.
Burrell, meanwhile, was fourth in the conference in assists with 3.7 dimes per game.
Colgate limped to a 5-9 finish in the Patriot League last season despite the strong play of Patriot League second teamer Murphy Burnatowski (17.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg). The Raiders return Burnatowski along with two other starters, plus they add Monmouth transfer Austin Tillotson and Ohio transfer Ethan Jacobs.
Navy compiled a miserable 8-23 record last season, the second straight year where the Midshipmen failed to win at least 10 games. But this season they return essentially everyone, which makes their outlook a bit more positive.
Returning in the backcourt are Tilman Dunbar and Brandon Venturini. Dunbar ranked No. 10 in the nation in assist rate, per Kenpom, and Venturini was Navy’s best three-point shooter at 35.1%. Although only a sophomore, Dunbar gained valuable experience last season, starting in all 31 games.
6’6″ forward Worth Smith, who led Navy in scoring last season with 10.2 points per game, and he was one of the Patriot League’s best shot blockers.
Mike Brennan’s first season as American’s head coach will not be easy.
Brennan, a former Georgetown assistant replaced Jeff Jones, returns two starters, John Schoof and Tony Wroblicky, but after that the Eagles are not very talented. Schoof was the nation’s third-best three-point shooter last season at 50.7%.
Sophomore Jesse Reed and redshirt junior Austin Carroll must take on bigger roles in the backcourt, and Kyle Kager will have an increased role in the frontcourt.
Patriot League Player of the Year
Cameron Ayers, Bucknell
Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year
Worth Smith, Navy
Patriot League Freshman of the Year
Nick Linder, Lafayette
Patriot League All-Conference Team
D.J. Irving, Boston U
Cameron Ayers, Bucknell
Dylon Cormier, Loyola (MD)
Murphy Burnatowski, Colgate
Dave Dudzinski, Holy Cross