Fair or not, will Bucknell enter the season overrated?
Quick: Name the mid-majors who have won NCAA Tournament games in each of the past two seasons.
You shouldn't need too much time. It's a short list. The group of three begins with Gonzaga, which barely fits in the category anymore, continues with pesky Wisconsin-Milwaukee and ends with Bucknell.
From the Patriot League. You know, the "other" league with all the smart kids.
Don't fret if you failed to remember the Bison. It's easy to forget about them, despite their alarmingly bright orange road uniforms. Most casual college hoops fans likely recall their upset-of-the-tournament 14-over-3 shocker of Kansas in the first round in 2005, but far fewer likely realize how well Bucknell followed up that win.
Last season, the Bison rolled to 27 overall victories, had a perfect run to the Patriot regular-season and tournament titles, broke into the Top 25 for the first time in school history, and calmly dispatched SEC opponent Arkansas in the first round of the dance. All this from a team in a league that just started phasing in scholarships again a few years ago after a short-lived experiment as an alternative Ivy League.
The biggest question the Bison may face in the 2006-07 season, one in which they will return three starters and some important reserves from the last two NCAA teams, is whether expectations are now unfairly high. While no coach will ever fully admit that his team has reached its reasonable potential, Bucknell head coach Pat Flannery understands how special the last two seasons in Lewisburg have been.
"How much more can people expect?" Flannery asked rhetorically. "People are now talking about the [Sweet] 16. If I were to compare us to other teams in the 16, we'd probably be 150th with the number of kids I can look at, because of the academics.
"To be realistic, we're going to get the kid who wants to be on Wall Street, but we also get a number of kids who want to play in the [NBA]. The neat part of the job is to find enough kids who want to be in the [NBA] and combine them with enough kids who want to go into Wall Street but are good players, and combine them into a good program."
That he has done. In addition to the NCAA wins, the Bison also have claimed an extremely rare nonconference win at Pitt and beaten Saint Joseph's of the A-10 while providing purists with a brand of fundamentally sound, balanced basketball.
It's worth noting that the Bison have been achieving at a level significantly higher than the four seasons preceding 2005, when Bucknell went 55-61 overall, but Flannery doesn't buy into the suggestion that the Bison are a "two-hit" wonder. The seeds for these two magical seasons were planted well before.
"Beating Kansas, beating Arkansas, those [create] national scenes, but we've been a good team before that," he said. "Previously, we would go to [schools like] a Pitt or an Iowa [State], and it would be a guarantee game and we would lose close games. Now we're winning a lot of those games, so going into the NCAA Tournament, we think we can compete at that level."
|Hawking their wares|
Bucknell's currently at an apex many of the other Patriot League schools are trying to reach. One that has, even more recently than Holy Cross, the league's most established annual power, is Lehigh.
Head coach Billy Taylor led his Mountain Hawks to a share of the regular-season title in 2004 before winning the tournament championship, although his squad's trip to the NCAAs was cut disappointingly short with a play-in game loss to MEAC champ Florida A&M.
Now entering his fifth season in Bethlehem, Taylor has his team once again positioned to challenge for the league crown. He knows his team, in part, has been able to grow and improve because of the exploits of its peers.
"I think the success Bucknell has had the last two years in the NCAAs, you factor that in with Holy Cross' success in the NIT two years ago, [and] I think the perception has been raised about the level of play in the Patriot League," Taylor said. "With the addition of scholarships, it's given us the ability to go after highly qualified students but to get a higher caliber of athlete than in the past. [The league's improved performance and the scholarships] have opened doors for us and gotten us in front of kids that we wouldn't have had an opportunity with in previous years."
Taylor is seeing this impact from top to bottom throughout the league.
"From the first year I was in the league to now, when you look at the [difference in quality in the] all-rookie teams and the quality of the player winning rookie of the year, it's very impressive," he said.
If the league is to continue to grow, though (read: get multiple teams in the postseason annually) Taylor knows that his club and the others below will have to start doing better in nonconference play.
"[Success in the nonconference schedule] is very important," he said. "Bucknell was able to do a great thing and Holy Cross has been able to fare very well in those nonconference games against some higher-conference opponents. That's where we still have room to grow. We want to be very consistent in our challenging of nonconference opponents and win one of those games, two of those games, which will give us [more] confidence going into conference play. We've done well in the Patriot League, but doing better in the nonconference games [is the next step.]"
That fact that they have provides additional support to the somewhat-objective RPI evidence that the conference is getting significantly better in rapid fashion. The league was the 27th-rated conference in RPI just five seasons ago. Since then, it has steadily climbed, finishing last season at 21st -- and that's in a year when the league didn't get another team into the postseason. In 2005, Holy Cross shook off a home loss to Bucknell in the Patriot title game to wipe out Notre Dame in South Bend in the first round of the NIT.
Still, Flannery is quick to return to the mantra of the smaller D-I conference, that success within the conference is the best metric of progress. In a league like the Patriot, where the teams hold themselves up to more restrictive admissions standards, the best comparison is to others who do the same -- especially when you're all tussling over one invitation to the dance.
"Certainly, I'm not trying to squelch any of the excitement [from the past two seasons' runs], but we have to be realistic about the expectations. I think one of the things that happens is that the academics of the Ivy and Patriot leagues I won't say they limit you, but the quality of your kid is different in significant ways," Flannery said. "It's not a bad thing, but from a student-athlete perspective, there are no shortcuts and you can't fill in for a senior who graduates and was all-league for three years. There's no quick fix, no transfers, no jucos, so you're dealing with freshmen every year. The apex for any program like ours would be be to compete for a league title every year, if that's possible."
For now, Bucknell is at that level. The next step has been getting more major-conference teams to come to Sojka Pavilion. The Bison hosted top-five Villanova last season and have Wake Forest coming in for their home opener this season. Flannery believes the success of teams like his -- and the fact that mid-majors proved last season they can get the benefit of the doubt from the NCAA selection committee -- will make these games more and more prevalent across college hoops.
"Take, for instance, your ACC teams that didn't get in [to the NCAAs last season as at-larges]," he said. "Now more and more of those teams are reaching out and saying we need to play some of these [mid-majors] on their floor to show that our league should get the opportunity ahead of these smaller conferences. There are more of those games this year than last year, and there will be even more next season. No one is jumping to play here, but they're willing to play more 2-for-1s."
With all of the recent success, you might think Flannery would be tempted by the siren call of the deeper stages of the NCAA Tournament. Excepting a miracle run that rivals George Mason's from last season, though, he seems pretty pleased with the status quo.
"You have to know what you are getting into, in a good way, when you get into these jobs and stay at these jobs," he said. "You don't have some of the headache. You still have the same will to win, but the friendships I have made will last a lifetime."
Just like the memories of the last two seasons, and perhaps the seasons to come, will last in the minds of Bucknell fans. In a nation that typically only celebrates champions, it's nice to know that happiness can also be derived merely from doing very well.
Good sign: This spring, Lafayette finally elected to join the scholarship party, which makes the Patriot League competitively balanced again. The Leopards were the last (non-service academy) holdouts from the league's nonscholarship era -- one which coincided with the decline of the conference into the bottom regions of Division I. Now Fran O'Hanlon, another in the cadre of excellent coaches in the league, will have a fairer chance to recreate the magic he conjured up in Easton in the late 1990s, when the Leopards ruled the Patriot roost.
Safe bet: The Patriot League will have more parity from top to bottom than it did last season. In 2005-06, Bucknell swept through the league at 14-0 and won the conference tournament, too. Holy Cross went 11-3 but lost to Bucknell three times (including the tournament championship game) and co-second place finisher Lehigh once. Aside from that one-point win over Holy Cross, Lehigh dropped its other four games against the Crusaders and Bison. Fourth-place American went 8-1 against the league's bottom four and 0-7 against the top three, including a loss at Bucknell in the Patriot semis.
Worth watching: If you're looking for a dark horse challenger for this season, cast an eye on the nation's capital, where American returns practically everyone from a team that finished 7-7 in the Patriot last season. Five of the team's top six returning scorers will be seniors this season and the one underclassman, 5-foot-9 sophomore PG Derrick Mercer, was the league's rookie of the year last season. The Eagles feature balanced scoring, plenty of guard depth and two capable big men inside. Jeff Jones' crew has reason to believe it could seriously threaten the upper crust after several seasons of modest performance.
Red flag: If the Patriot wants to take the next step -- meaning regular NIT bids and possible at-large NCAA consideration -- it needs the bottom teams in the league to get better. Right now, that means the two service academies. Army and Navy combined for a 4-24 league record last season, with two of the four wins coming against each other. The saving grace for Army, which was the third-worst offensive team in the nation last season (in terms of points per 100 possessions), is that it was extremely young. Like American, the Black Knights return their entire roster, led by capable perimeter scorers Jarell Brown and Matt Bell. Navy will miss inspirational senior Matt Fannin, who played the second half of last season on a torn ACL. The also-youthful Midshipmen will hang their hats on the continued excellence of top scorer and rebounder Greg Sprink, along with a strong incoming freshman class.
American The Eagles' chances of a surge up the standings likely will hinge on improved shooting from guard Andre Ingram. Ingram, the team's leading scorer, shot an abysmal 34.5 percent from the floor (33.8 percent from 3) last season, well down from his 41.0 percent success rate as a sophomore. As his 24 points at Washington last year attest to, Ingram can play, but the Eagles need more from Ingram in Patriot play. He had six single-digit scoring performances in league games last season, including just five points in the season-ending loss at Bucknell.
Army The 5-22 record last season might not clue you in, but several Patriot League coaches mentioned how much better Army was getting. Coach Jim Crews played a whopping 15 different players in at least 13 games last season, and only graduated one of them, so he should have a much better sense of where he stands entering this campaign. He'll need that knowledge to help fix a team that was ranked in the 300s in tempo, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency last season -- a recipe that created poor results and, at times, aesthetically poor basketball.
Bucknell Flannery has two related goals for this season now that his team has lost outstanding wing Charles Lee and sharpshooter Kevin Bettencourt: get the ball inside more to Chris McNaughton and insist that he shoots it when he gets it. Ironically, for a player known nationally for his jump hook that beat Kansas in 2005, the 6-11 German doesn't shoot that much. He took fewer than 10 shots a game last season, even though he made almost 58 percent of his attempts. Look for McNaughton also to vastly increase his three free throw attempts per game -- also a good thing, given his 75.3 percent conversion rate last season.
Colgate Preseason trips abroad aren't reserved only for the Floridas and Dukes of the world. The Red Raiders, looking to improve upon last season's 4-10 league mark, will head to Madrid on Aug. 15 to start a series of five games against local competition throughout the country. Part of the reasoning for Colgate's trip, though, might be unique. According to the school, one of the reasons for choosing Spain was for senior captain Jon Simon, a Spanish major, to experience the country's culture.
Holy Cross With the loss of leading scorer Kevin Hamilton, the torch has now been fully passed to two-time first-team All-Patriot guard Keith Simmons, who averaged 14.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last season while shooting 52.5 percent from the field and a searing 47.6 percent from the arc. He won't be alone. After Simmons, the Crusaders return their next five leading scorers as well.
Lafayette Don't have much size inside? Start chucking from the arc. Last season, Lafayette, whose tallest rotation players were 6-7, had the unfortunate combo of the 13th-highest 3-point FG attempt rate in the land (43.7 percent of all FGAs) and the 212th-best percentage made (33.8 percent). At least most of their shots made it to the rim -- the Leopards had the nation's 10th-lowest rate of shots rejected (5.9 percent).
Lehigh Taylor is excited about his incoming freshman class, most notably Marquis Hall, a 6-foot point guard from Portland, Ore., who was named the MVP in this year's Oregon-Washington all-star game. With leading returning scorers Jose Olivero and Kyle Neptune back to provide additional perimeter punch, expect the Mountain Hawks to be more potent than last season, when their offensive efficiency was only 273rd in the nation, but just as stingy defensively, where they held opponents to the second-lowest 2-point FG percentage in the nation (40.9 percent).
Navy The Midshipmen are bringing the Patriot League back to its early-2000s roots with a "home" game against Brown at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md. The arena, part of an equestrian center, hosted the league's tournament before it went to a school-hosting model several seasons ago. The Midshipmen needed an extra game but their home arena was booked on the date that worked for both schools.
Bucknell may have lost a couple of stars, but the Bison return enough talent to have Joe Lunardi confident of a three-peat. In his early (early, early) look at the 2007 NCAA Tournament field, our resident bracketologist has Bucknell as a No. 14 seed.
|Team||League record||Overall record|
|Leading returning scorers|
|Player (Team)||2005-06 PPG|
|Jose Olivero (Lehigh)||17.1|
|Greg Sprink (Navy)||14.9|
|Jarell Brown (Army)||14.3|
|Keith Simmons (Holy Cross)||14.2|
|Matt Bell (Army)||13.0|
Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor for ESPN.com. E-mail him here.
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