Top Patriot League storylines to watch in 2017-18:
1. Bucknell is poised to be one of the top mid-major programs in the country, capable of making noise in March as well. Nate Davis has challenged his team with a brutal nonconference schedule, and the Bison are more than capable of knocking off one of their major conference opponents.
2. Traditional PL powers BU and Lehigh might slide a bit (emphasis on might), while Colgate, Army and Navy could emerge in their stead, making the top 5-6 of the league competitive even with a dominant force like Bucknell in the mix.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Bucknell– Nathan Davis has all five starters returning from last year’s PL title team, and that includes four all-league honorees and the PL POY, Nana Foulland. Davis has both quantity and quality at his disposal, and thus Bucknell has a very legitimate opportunity to sweep their conference slate. The Bison backcourt and frontcourt is equally strong. Foulland leads the way at the 5 and is a dominant force on both ends. Foulland shot 63 percent from the floor and led the PL in block rate while ranking fourth and seventh in the league in offensive and defensive rebounding rate, respectively. He shot free throws at the fifth highest rate but only hit 57 percent from the stripe, and there was a bit of "Hack-a-Nana" in tight games. Junior Nate Sestina could be poised for a breakout year at the 4 when Davis has a big lineup. Sestina can stretch defenses while also being able to rebound on both ends and defend physical posts and opposing mobile 4s. 6-foot-8 Bruce Moore provides even more depth and defensive versatility, and freshman John Meeks might even find minutes in the frontcourt as well. 6-foot-7 Zach Thomas returns on the wing, and if not for Foulland, he would easily be the frontrunner for PL POY. Thomas is a legit three-level scorer with outstanding court vision from the high post and the wing. Thomas’ Patriot League KenPom line is as impressive as they come: 11th in ORtg, eighth in defensive rebounding rate, ninth in drawing fouls, 52 percent shooting from 2, 81 percent from the line and 43 percent from 3. Thomas is the definition of a "do-everything" player. Avi Toomer returns as Davis’ best perimeter defender, and Nate Jones is back from an injury plagued sophomore season as one of the best spot shooters on the roster. 6-foot-5 Ben Robertson will add athleticism and depth to the wing corps as a freshman. The backcourt is just as deep as the frontcourt and wing units, with Stephen Brown returning at the point. Brown is the ideal point guard for this loaded squad – solid, steady and smart. He posted the league’s third-highest assist rate and is a plus on-ball defender and shooter, truly one of the most underrated points in the country. Kimbal Mackenzie returns off the ball and is somehow even more underrated than Brown. Imagine posting a 123 ORtg in league play (the highest mark in the conference) and having a .586/.868/.432 shooting slash line and being considered the third best option on your team? Having Foulland and Thomas around certainly helps buoy those numbers, but on any other Patriot League team, Mackenzie is probably the leading scorer. Freshman Jimmy Sotos adds to the embarrassment of riches as a combo guard and the future of the Bison in the backcourt. Bucknell posted the league’s top efficiency rating on both ends of the court. Offensively they thrive in transition, but they’re lethal in halfcourt pick and roll and can obviously run offense through Foulland. Defensively they extend past the 3-point line and played the best 3PT and 2PT defense in the league, leading to a PL best 0.92 points per possession allowed. There are no discernible flaws for the Bison, with the exception of maybe some vulnerability on the defensive glass, but a bulked up Sestina likely solves that. You will not want to see the Bison on your line come March, and if they’re a 9-11 seed, they might even be favored.
2. Navy– Ed DeChellis has four seniors at his disposal, and the Midshipmen should be able to continue the improvement arc they’ve been on since DeChellis took over in 2011 and they went winless in league play. Since then the improvement has been incremental but noticeable, from zero wins in that first season to 10 last year, the first winning PL campaign for DeChellis and the first in Annapolis since 2008-09. With all the veteran leadership on the roster, DeChellis’ extended 1-3-1 trapping halfcourt zone should be one of the best defenses in the league, but the offense needs to keep up on the other end. Leading scorer Shawn Anderson returns as a do-everything wing, ranking seventh in PL play in assist rate, 10th in steal rate and sixth in free throw rate. If Anderson can add a steady jump shot to his lethal slashing game, Navy could be much improved offensively. Anderson will be surrounded by a deep backcourt led by Hasan Abdullah at the point. Abdullah is a plus shooter and DeChellis’ best defender at the top of the 1-3-1. Nourse Fox returns as a capable senior backup to Abdullah, especially on the defensive end. Bryce Dulin and George Kiernan return off the ball and as a stretch 4, respectively. They combine to form DeChellis’ best threats from the perimeter. The frontcourt is formed by Tom Lacey, one of the league’s top rebounders and an underrated offensive option on the block, and Evan Wieck, a developing offensive threat as a sophomore at the 5. Navy should be among the best defensive teams in the league, but they lack proven depth and there are some questions offensively and defensively in the frontcourt. That said, this is an experienced squad with a very good X’s and O’s coach.
3. Lehigh– The Tim Kempton era has finally ended in Bethlehem, and it disappointingly closed without a Patriot League title. However, even without Kempton, the Mountain Hawks shouldn’t fall to far off the title trail, as senior Kahron Ross returns at the point and Brett Reed has the league’s best incoming recruiting class. Ross is of course the engine for Lehigh as one of, if not the best, point guards in the league. Ross posted the league’s fifth-highest assist rate and eighth-highest free throw rate while hitting 40 percent of his 3-pointers in league play. That elite slashing/shooting combo makes him excessively difficult to matchup with off the dribble, and he’ll probably have to shoulder more of the scoring load this year. Kyle Leufroy returns off the ball as a lethal perimeter shooter and lockdown defender on the perimeter. Sophomore Jordan Cohen returns as another backcourt shooter, and Reed added depth with ECU transfer Lance Tejada, a Florida prep standout who struggled in Jeff Lebo’s motion offense but should excel in Reed’s more transition based scheme. Two highly touted freshmen in Marques Wilson and Caleb Bennett should factor in immediately on the wing. Bennett in particular immediately improves the athleticism of the Mountain Hawks. The frontcourt has some major concerns with Kempton graduating, but there are options, especially if JUCO import Ed Porter’s shoulder holds up. Porter was a three-star recruit out of high school until the injury. He’ll be relied upon immediately with Caleb Sedore and Jack Lieb both having questionable season long prognoses after knee injuries in consecutive seasons. Pat Andree returns as a stretch 4 and solid rebounder, and James Karnik will probably have to log serious minutes at the 5 as a freshman. There are a lot of question marks for the Mountain Hawks, especially in the frontcourt, but the return of Ross and Leufroy and the addition of Tejada and Bennett gives Reed as good of a backcourt/wing corps as there is in the league.
4. Colgate– Matt Langel returns everyone from last year’s 8-10 Patriot squad, and the experienced Raiders should be more efficient running his inverted four-out motion offense. Sean O’Brien is a veteran at the point in Langel’s offense and a lethal shooter as well. He’s surrounded by lightning fast penetrator Francisco Amiel and senior Jordan Robertson off the ball. Two stretch 4s in Will Rayman and Jordan Swopshire are the keys to Langel’s offense, as both are 40-plus percent perimeter shooters in league play. Malcolm Regisford returns as the "one" in Langel’s offense and is one of the best rim protectors and rebounders in the league. Tom Rivard played through a broken foot last year, and if he’s healthy, he’s another mobile big in Langel’s offense that can make the Raiders excessively difficult to matchup against. Dana Batt provides depth behind Regisford, while Aussie Hugh Baxter is the most likely newcomer to see minutes on a veteran squad. At 6-foot-8, Baxter has the perimeter game that Langel covets. More experience running Langel’s 3-point heavy offense should improve the efficiency, but the defense, particularly on the wings, has to improve significantly as well for the Raiders to truly be a PL contender this season.
5. Boston U– The late offseason loss of point guard Kyle Foreman makes BU’s forecast a little cloudy, but Joe Jones is one of the league’s best coaches, and has never had a losing season since taking over on the BU sideline in 2012. Eric Johnson should be the full time point in Foreman’s wake. Johnson showed a plus jump shot and distributing ability when healthy, but was also turnover prone. Cedric Hankerson can also play on the ball, but his explosiveness has been severely hampered by back-to-back knee injuries, making him more of a "3 and D" type player, where he can still at excel. Hankerson posted the league’s second-highest steal rate in Jones’ extended zone defense. Freshman Javante McCoy could emerge as an option at the point as a bigger 6-foot-5 combo guard. Cheddi Mosely and Destin Barnes return off the ball after Jones kicked them off the team 10 games into the season. Mosely is a slasher with a solid jump shot, while Barnes is an athletic 6-foot-6 defender on the perimeter. The wing depth could be a strength for Jones (and key his defense) if two freshmen contribute as expected. 6-foot-6 Walter Whyte is a three-star recruit who could start at the 3 immediately, and Andrew Petcash is a born scorer and plus rebounder on the wing. The frontcourt has some issues, as senior Nick Havener is the only returnee of note, which means sharpshooting sophomore Tyler Scanlon probably has to play out of position at the 4. I’m not one to count out a Jones coached team, but the lack of a frontcourt and proven point guard probably slides them out of their usual spot in the Patriot League upper tier.
6. Army– Jimmy Allen picked up where his predecessor Zach Spiker left off in terms of offensive scheme, as the Black Knights played at the league’s fastest pace and attempted 3-pointers at the highest rate, which is no surprise considering Allen was Spiker’s long-time assistant. Some bad luck in close games makes Army’s 6-12 league mark a bit misleading, and his young roster from a year ago returns nearly everyone this year. Dual ball handlers Tommy Funk and Jordan Fox will lead the up-tempo Army attack. Fox is a potent shooter/slasher due for a massive junior year, while Funk needs to improve his perimeter shot selection in Allen’s 3-point heavy transition scheme. Both also need to improve their on-ball defense as well. 6-foot-4 wing Jacob Kessler is a key cog in the drag screen offense and is a solid rebounder for his size. John Emezie emerged on the wing as Allen’s most versatile defender and a potent attacker in the open court. 6-foot-6 Luke Morrison returns to the frontcourt as a stretch 4, while Matt Wilson showed a burgeoning post game as a freshman center, shooting 63 percent and rebounding at a high level on both ends. Army’s first team is on par with everyone in the 2-4 tier, but defense on the perimeter and lack of quality depth in the frontcourt are major concerns. That said, I wouldn’t want to play Army on a quick turnaround or when they’re hot from 3-point range.
7. American– The Eagles are going to be young, but a burgeoning sophomore duo of Sa’eed Nelson at the point and Mark Gasperini at the 5 gives Mike Brennan a solid nucleus to build around, and the young pieces from last season should be more fluid in his Princeton offense, which he had to abandon for stretches during last season. Brennan did add a pair of impact newcomers on the wing who should immediately improve the perimeter shooting, and Eagles should return to a top-100 3-point attempt rate nationally and should significantly above the 31 percent they posted last year. Starting with the backcourt, Nelson simply doesn’t leave the floor. Brennan has always utilized little to virtually no bench, and Nelson epitomized that with the nation’s second-highest percentage of minutes played. Nelson is a relentless penetrator on the ball, but is in desperate need of a jump shot, as he hit just nine of his 46 attempts from 3 in league play. Nelson is also the ringleader of Brennan’s halfcourt pressure defense that routinely generates turnovers at a top-50 rate while also limiting 3-point attempts – key in a league that loves to chuck the 3. Off the ball, James Washington fell out of favor last year and might lose minutes still to JUCO transfer CB Diallo. With high-scoring freshman Sam Iorio and NAIA transfer Larry Motuzis expected to provide immediate shooting help on the wing, Brennan might elect to go with a bigger lineup featuring those two as starters at the 2/3 and freshman Drew LaMont as a stretch 4 and Gasperini at the 5. If Gasperini develops his perimeter game, he’ll likely move to the 4 and veteran Matt Cimino will take over at the 5. Cimino finished the year strong and is most likely a starter this year, with lanky 6-foot-10 freshman Jesse Little providing frontcourt depth. It will take some time for the new faces to catch on to Brennan’s system on both ends, but if Nelson and Gasperini continue to develop as sophomores, particularly with their jump shots, Brennan will have a lot more roster flexibility, and the two new wings could be under the radar major additions. The Eagles have a reasonably high ceiling this year despite the lack of experience.
8. Loyola Maryland– GG Smith returns a veteran team in his fifth season in Baltimore, and this could be the year the Greyhounds break through with a winning Patriot League season. However, if the Greyhounds do break through, it will have to come via a four-guard lineup that moves all-conference point guard Andre Walker off the ball. Smith has no frontcourt depth at all behind Cam Gregory. If Smith can convert the Greyhounds to a four-out, spread pick-and-roll offense around the highly efficient Gregory, Loyola could be in business. If not, it’s going to be a long year. Gregory led the Patriot League with 68 percent shooting from 2 and was dominant on the glass as well. With Gregory and the departed Jarred Jones, only 15 teams in the country attempted a higher percentage of their shots at the rim than the Greyhounds. With high-scoring combo guard Isaiah Hart coming in, look for Smith to use him more at the point and slide Walker off the ball to improve his efficiency. With Chancellor Barnard (one of Smith’s most versatile defenders) out for what appears to be a significant portion, if not all, of the season, the Greyhound defense will likely struggle to improve upon the league’s eighth-worst efficiency rating. Loyola was routinely attacked at the wings by opposing offenses. James Fives and Andrew Kostecka give Smith floor-stretching ability, but neither is a strong defender. Chcuk Champion could see minutes on the wing because of his defense, but he’s limited offensively. If Smith can figure out a four-out rotation that doesn’t get gashed on the perimeter, the Greyhounds might be a top half team. If not, they should continue to plod along around the .500 mark.
9. Holy Cross– In Bill Carmody we trust, but it might take him most of the season to get his young team to learn the ropes of his tricky 1-3-1 pressure zone and the intricacies of his methodical motion offense. Karl Charles is the lone "sure thing" on Carmody’s roster, and he’s poised for a monster junior year as the focal point of Carmody’s offense with his ability to score at all three levels. The backcourt duo around him is a little concerning, but Patrick Benzan at the point has improved so dramatically during his time in Worcester, it’s hard to not include him as one of the best potential point guards in the league this year. He’s small but effective at the top of the zone, and he’s an underrated distributor. He does, however, need to develop some semblance of a jump shot. Who plays off the ball is a more of a concern for Carmody, as Matt Zignorski fell out of the rotation. Freshman Caleb Green could play the point and move Benzan off the ball, while freshmen wings Austin Butler and Kyle Copeland could be immediate factors as scorers at the 2/3. The frontcourt is even more in flux. Jehyve Floyd will be relied upon defensively and on the glass, but Jack Stevens is the only other returning big, and he doesn’t really fit Carmody’s scheme offensively. 6-foot-9 freshman Matt Faw is more in line with what Carmody is looking for from his bigs, as he can stretch out to the perimeter offensively, but he’ll likely struggle defensively as a freshman. With so many new faces being relied upon to pick up complex schemes on both ends of the floor, the learning curve could be steep for the young Crusaders.
10. Lafayette– Fran O’Hanlon’s 23rd year at the helm in Easton, PA could very well be another long one. The Leopards return four starters, but that’s not as exciting as it sounds when that crew posted a 9-21 record last year, and the one starter not returning is outstanding point guard Nick Lindner. Senior Eric Stafford likely moves over to point this year, but he’s probably better served off the ball because of his size and shooting ability. The hope is that Alex Petrie can eventually take over at the point as a freshman. Fellow frosh E.J. Stephens should provide some scoring punch in O’Hanlon’s four-out offense. Kyle Stout returns on the wing, but he didn’t show much of a jump shot, a must in O’Hanlon’s 3-point centric sets. The frontcourt is certainly the strength of the Leopards this year, with leading scorer Matt Klinewski returning at the 5 as well as floor stretcher Paulius Zalys. Zalys has yet to develop into the Seth Hinrichs role that was expected, but Klinewski has been as good of a block scorer as there is in the league, and he led the PL in usage and percentage of shots taken. Lukas Jarrett is the only rim protector in O’Hanlon’s zone, but he’s strictly an offense for defense sub. In short, the Leopards just don’t have the personnel to play the typical offensive basketball O’Hanlon’s best teams have featured.
FINAL OUTLOOK: This is Bucknell’s league, and running the table is definitely on the table, as is a victory or even two in March. They’re that good. Navy and Lehigh are potential CIT teams.
PATRIOT LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nana Foulland, Bucknell
ALL PATRIOT LEAGUE FIRST TEAM:
Nana Foulland, Bucknell
Zach Thomas, Bucknell
Kahron Ross, Lehigh
Andre Walker, Loyola MD
Stephen Brown, Bucknell
ALL PATRIOT LEAGUE SECOND TEAM:
Shawn Anderson, Navy
Sa’eed Nelson, American
Jordan Fox, Army
Kimbal Mackenzie, Bucknell
Matt Klinewski, Lafayette
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