League play begins this week
Patriot League play begins this week after an impressive showing in non-conference action. Teams combined for multiple wins over opponents from each of the following conferences: ACC, Big East, Atlantic 10, America East, and Ivy League.
Conference coaches and SIDs picked Lehigh to win it all in the League’s pre-season poll and shared multiple first-place votes for Holy Cross and defending champion Bucknell as well. How does that poll look today? Is there another contending team lurking with legitimate championship aspirations? (Spoiler alert: yes, and they didn’t receive a single first-place vote). What are the takeaways from the non-conference schedule for the top contenders? Let’s take a look at the favorites:
Does Lehigh have enough offense for a championship run?
Pre-season favorite Lehigh heads into conference play with an 8-3 record. Two of their losses were buzzer-beater games (to Ball State and Fordham) that could have fallen their way with the right bounce or two. A 77-49 road loss to the nationally-ranked Minnesota Gophers was their third setback and only non-competitive game played. Overall, Lehigh showed impressive consistency on the defensive end and selfless play from a senior-led group who appear ready for a championship run.
If there’s a concern for the Mountain Hawks it’s on the offensive end. They have struggled with perimeter shooting and been challenged by zone defense when they’ve encountered it. Through 11 games, Lehigh is shooting 38.3% from the floor which is ninth in the 10-team league. Although the team is third in points per game at 67.2, they are dead-last in three-point shooting with a 28.4% (58-for-204).
If the recent history of the league holds true, Lehigh will need to improve those numbers to cut down the nets. In the last five seasons, the Patriot League champion finished either first or second in both scoring and shooting percentage over the course of their full season schedule. Let’s take a look at those numbers:
Shooting percentage: 45.9% (1st)
Scoring average: 72.4 ppg (1st)
Shooting percentage: 40.6% (2nd)
Scoring average: 64.4 ppg (2nd)
Shooting percentage: 43.9% (1st)
Scoring average: 67.4 ppg (1st)
Shooting percentage: 44.9% (1st)
Scoring average: 70.3 ppg (1st)
Shooting percentage: 44.2% (1st)
Scoring average: 63.5 ppg (2nd)
Three games—all wins—highlighted some concerns with both perimeter shooting and executing zone offense: Merrimack, Mount St. Mary’s, and Saint Peter’s. Lehigh possessed a talent and depth advantage in each of those games, but struggled. Most recently, they edged Saint Peter’s, 80-71, after trailing in the fourth quarter. The game against Merrimack went to overtime, and they beat Mount St. Mary’s on a buzzer-beating three-pointer to cap an amazing comeback. Why such a struggle? Collectively, they were 20-for-68 from three-point range in those contests.
Junior Mary Clougherty leads the team with 14 three-pointers made–12th in the league in makes and at a 37.8% rate which ranks 11th. Pre-season All-Patriot selection Camryn Buhr leads the team in scoring with 13.7 ppg and rebounding at 7.3 rpg and is the squad’s best three-point shooter by percentage at 39.3%. But Lehigh will have to find an additional option and more consistency in their perimeter game. Can the Mountain Hawks’ steady play on the defensive end fill in that gap?
Lehigh plays great team defense both in the half-court and in transition. They are second in the league in both points allowed and field goal percentage defense. But the recent history of conference champions suggests they’ll have to improve on the offensive end down the stretch to break out of the pack among the favorites in the league.
League play poses some important questions for Lehigh. Can they succeed down the road in a playoff match-up against a team like Colgate which exclusively plays a 2-3 match-up zone? Will they solve the man-to-man pack-line defense of Bucknell which will assuredly force Lehigh to beat it over-the-top with consistent perimeter play? Can the Mountain Hawks keep pace with the high-scoring offense of Holy Cross?
Holy Cross has it all. Can they win it all?
So which team is leading the league in scoring and tops in overall shooting percentage? Holy Cross. The Crusaders are scoring 73.0 ppg, shooting 43.3% from the field, and leading the league in three-point shooting at 42.9%–with the most threes made (85). They are the most explosive team in the league and they have the most difficult match-up in pre-season Player of the Year, Lauren Manis.
Holy Cross heads into league play with a 6-4 record. Inconsistency has been an issue but when this group is locked in, look out. Despite four losses in their out-of-conference play, the Crusaders have demonstrated the ability to score inside and out, in transition, and versus multiple defensive schemes.
Manis leads the league in scoring with 19.2 ppg and is second in rebounding with 11.2 rpg. She has logged double-doubles in five straight games, eight for the season. She can score from all over the floor, attack the rim off the dribble, and shoot it from distance. Manis is shooting 51.6% from three-point range (16-for-31) and is a difficult cover in all options of ball screen action.
Making the most of the ball screen features in the Holy Cross offense are guards Avery LaBarbera and Madlyn Smith. Both are ranked in the league’s top 10 for assist-to-turnover ratio and are on pace for career scoring bests in points per game. And they can shoot it from deep. Smith is shooting 45.2% from three-point range (19-for-42) and LaBarbera nearly matches that output with a 42.3% rate (30-for-71). Four out of the top six three-point shooters in the Patriot League suit up for the Crusaders. They have a balanced and dynamic offense and are hard to guard or slow down.
So what’s their weakness? When the offense slows, the defensive effort tends to slow along with it—and that’s a combination that might open the door for a tough loss or two against foes in the league whose mentality is built to grind out a game (looking at you, Bucknell). Holy Cross has allowed 67.4 ppg–eighth among conference teams. Their field goal percentage defense is better than average at 39.1% and third overall in the league. But is that defense good enough to win the championship?
When their shots aren’t falling, can they rely on their defense to keep them in the game? They’ve suffered through some scoring droughts and have had difficulty slowing opponents’ runs, especially when they can’t convert on the offensive end.
In an early-season match-up with Illinois, they watched a 16-point third quarter lead dwindle to two after a 15-2 run. They failed to get key stops and fell in overtime, 78-75. And in their most recent loss, to North Florida, the Crusaders entered the fourth quarter down two points but shot just 21.4% in the final frame (3-for-14) and allowed their opponents to shoot 77.8% (7-for-9) from the field. They also sent the Ospreys to the line 12 times. Their defense faded as their shots missed. The biggest question for Holy Cross: can they get key stops when scoring doesn’t come easily or when the game is on the line?
Is this the start of another championship run for Bucknell?
Bucknell is not a sleeper pick for the title—they are a favorite. They are defending champions and have demonstrated in their non-conference schedule that they are capable of returning to the top. The Bison are 7-4 with quality wins over Cincinnati, George Mason, and Drexel. The questions coming into the season were about coaching and depth—and they’ve both been answered.
What’s been the impact of the change in coaching staffs? It’s mostly been about style. Offensively, they are a bit more deliberate and less free-flowing. They hunt for a great shot early and, if not available, work the clock and the defense. Defensively, they are committed to a pack-line style and are a more physical team in the half-court than a season ago.
Did graduation affect their depth? Yes, but the cupboard wasn’t empty. Bucknell graduated three starters who had great careers. But sharp-shooting senior Ellie Mack returned along with three-point specialist Abby Kapp–both were starters a year ago. The team also brought back six other players with championship pedigree. Early-season questions were about filling those shoes with players stepping into new or expanded roles. So who is stepping in—and stepping up–for the Bison?
Keep your eye on junior Ally Johnson. She’s moved into a starting shooting guard role and is playing 33.1 mpg and averaging 10.2 ppg—good for third on the team. She posted a career high 17 points in a win over St. Bonaventure and nailed three three-pointers in an upset win over Cincinnati. She’s missed the last two games due to a concussion injury but is expected back soon.
Joining Johnson in filling big shoes is forward Tessa Brugler. The junior post has been a revelation for the Bison after the graduation of Patriot League tournament MVP Kaitlyn Saugus. Brugler is scoring 10.1 ppg and hauling in 6.6 rpg. She’s anchored the interior and has established herself as both an option on offense and a reliable post defender. Her 53.5% from the field is the best among the starting unit.
Sophomore Marly Walls has taken the reigns of the offense for Head Coach Trevor Woodruff. Walls has started all 11 games this season and is in the top ten in the league for steals and assist-to-turnover ratio. The Kentucky native has posted 6.7 ppg and is logging 29.5 mpg.
The recent play of sophomore wing Taylor O’Brien and freshman point guard Tai Johnson would seem to allay any concerns of depth for the Bison. O’Brien, filling in for the injured Johnson, posted 14 and 23 points in the team’s most recent games against St. Francis (PA) and Stony Brook, respectively. And Johnson played 43 minutes in the Bison’s double-overtime loss against Stony Brook, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 shooting and making three steals.
Bucknell is fourth in the league in scoring at 65.6 ppg but that may be a bit misleading. They are more measured on the offensive end and the game plays slower when the Bison are on the court–their efficiency is where they aim to win. They remain one of the best shooting teams in the league and are second only to Holy Cross with a 42.7% mark from the field.
On the defensive end, they are in the top half of the conference for points allowed (60.1ppg) and field goal percentage defense (39.2%). They might have the best combination of offense and defense in the league. Fans expecting Bucknell to be there in the end may just be rewarded with another championship.
Can Colgate keep a great start going?
Colgate didn’t receive a first-place vote in the Patriot League’s pre-season poll. So why are they a threat to bring a championship back to upstate New York? The answer: team chemistry, depth, and a good zone defense. They hold the highest RPI rank in the Patriot League at 70. They are tied for the best record at 8-3 with Lehigh–and using the metric for the scoring average and shooting percentage of the previous five champions puts them square in the conversation as we begin league play.
The Raiders are second in the conference in scoring average at 69.8 per game and third in shooting percentage at 42.3%. They have star power in senior Rachel Thompson, a pre-season pick for All-Patriot League team. She leads the league in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, is third in scoring at 15.8 ppg, fifth in rebounding at 8.1 rpg, and is shooting 50.7% from the floor. Her 35 steals are good for second in the conference too. Thompson can do it all. Why not a run to the championship?
Colgate’s 8-3 start is the best-ever for the program, and the team finished the non-conference portion of the schedule undefeated at home with a 5-0 mark. Their three-point shooting isn’t shiny at 32.4%, but their overall shooting performance is putting wins in the column. Five of their rotation players are shooting 43.5% or better from the floor. Do they have the offense to get to the championship? They do.
Taylor Langan (9.5 ppg), Abby Schubiger (9.3 ppg), and Tegan Graham (8.2 ppg) join Thompson in leading the Raiders’ balanced offensive attack. The group is directed at the point guard spot by freshman Alex Brodie who has started all 11 games and played 25.9 mpg. Guards Nia Ahart and Haley Greer returned from injury in the team’s most recent game, a 74-58 win over Wagner.
What sets Colgate apart is their defensive philosophy. Head Coach Bill Clearly and his Raiders are all in on their match-up zone. Teams that aren’t used to executing against zone might find themselves on the wrong end of a result if their zone preparation is just one practice and a walkthrough. Colgate is too good. But can they stop the top shooting teams in the league?
How do they match up with those favorites? Lehigh and Holy Cross feature the same line-ups they did a season ago. Colgate went 1-3 against them in the regular season last year, the lone win coming against the Crusaders in Worcester, 70-67. The Raiders did draw Lehigh in the quarterfinals last postseason and it was a one-point game, 62-61, in favor of Colgate with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter before Lehigh won, 78-68. Can the Raiders find a way to a playoff home game, redemption, and a path to the championship? Don’t count them out.
Game of the Week:
Colgate at American @7:00p.m. January 2nd
Note: This is a key early battle among teams with playoff aspirations. American has won two Patriot League championships in the last five seasons and been a consistent presence at the top of the conference. Colgate continues a push to break into the top-half of the league and position themselves as a contender for the title. American received two votes to finish on top in the Patriot League pre-season poll. If Colgate wants to make a claim as a top team, a win here is the start they need. American’s losses to graduation were significant and their 4-6 mark is a sign they’ll be in a battle to stay in the top half of the league. Winner makes an early statement that they’ll be that top five team.
Tune in to Patriot League action this week:
Holy Cross at Loyola (MD) @12:00p.m.
Bucknell at Army @6:00p.m.
Boston University at Lafayette @6:00p.m.
Navy at Lehigh @7:00p.m.
Colgate at American @7:00p.m.
Holy Cross at Navy @4:00p.m.
Lehigh at Loyola (MD) @1:00p.m.
Army at Colgate @2:00p.m.
American at Boston University @2:00p.m.
Lafayette at Bucknell @2:00p.m.
League news and notes:
- Junior guard Katie Nelson of Boston University scored a career-high 29 points in a 72-56 win over Northeastern.
- Bucknell freshman Tai Johnson played a career-high 43 minutes in the Bison’s 78-73 double-overtime loss to Stony Brook. She’s averaging 14.7 mpg.
- Army has claimed League “Rookie of the Week’ five times this season.
- Taylor O’Brien made her first two career starts last week for Bucknell. The sophomore guard shot a combined 13-for-27 from the field, 4-for-8 from three-point distance, 7-for-7 from the free throw line, and collected six rebounds.
- Lauren Manis has recorded eight double-doubles this season, including five straight. The Holy Cross forward scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a 75-63 win over Stetson to conclude the Crusaders non-conference slate.
- Lehigh’s Camryn Buhr posted 20 points in the Mountain Hawk’s 80-71 victory over Saint Peter’s, her fourth game scoring 20 points this season.
- Freshman Annabelle Larnard led Boston University with five assists in just 19 minutes of action in their win over cross-town rival Northeastern.
- In Army’s 81-75 win over Bryant, the team put five players in double-figure scoring for the first time since 2012.
- Kaitlyn Marenyi led American with 16 points in their 66-53 win over George Washington University. The Eagles improved to 4-6 and open conference play by hosting Colgate.
- Stephanie Karcz posted her third career triple-double in a Loyola (MD) 72-56 win over Dartmouth. The senior guard scored 13 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and secured 10 steals.
Patriot League Player of the Week:
Natalie Kucowski, Lafayette, Junior Forward
- Hauled in 17 rebounds versus UMBC. Kucowski is ranked third in the nation in rebounding.
- Recorded her eighth double-double of the season against UMBC. She has 31 career double-doubles.
- The junior’s 20 points against UMBC marked the third time she’s reached at least 20 points this season. Her 12 defensive boards matched a season-high. She now averages 14.2 points per game and 12.9 rebounds per game.
- Kucowski’s four blocks give her 140 for her career.
Patriot League Rookie of the Week:
Kamryn Hall, Army, Freshman Forward
- Second time Hall has been recognized as ‘Rookie of the Week,’ having claimed the honor the week of November 25.
- Hall registered 14 points in the team’s 81-75 victory over Bryant to mark the fourth time this season that she’s reached double-digits in scoring.
- Grabbed eight rebounds and added a career-high four assists versus Bryant.
- Leads Army in assists with 26 on the season.
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