Two oddly-timed coaching changes were the big offseason stories in the Patriot League since American bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round. First, Ralph Willard left his alma mater, Holy Cross, to be Rick Pitino's associate head coach at Louisville. Sean Kearney, a former assistant under Mike Brey at Notre Dame takes over in Worcester. Willard had guided the Crusaders to four NCAAs in his ten seasons at the helm, and had a great shot to make a fifth trip this season.
Meanwhile, Army made a very late change. Former Cornell assistant Zach Spiker replaced Jim Crews on October 1. Crews was about to start his eighth season at West Point and had just received a contract extension; however, athletic director Kevin Anderson felt that he had to make a change. Spiker takes over a program that could very well have its first winning season in 25. The Black Knights have never made the NCAAs. Even Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski were unable to guide the Cadets to the Big Dance.
Two-time defending champion American lost a lot of talent after last season, so the Patriot League should see a new winner in 2010. I'll go through each team's chances after the jump.
Let's first take a look at last season's Patriot League standings.
Patriot League Standings
Now, here are my picks for the 2009-10 Patriot League season, presented in reverse order.
Lafayette (last NCAA: 2000) The Leopards featured seven freshmen last season, so the hope is the year of experience will serve the team well. Last season, Lafeyette's defense was dreadful, ranking 293rd in Division I, and the offense wasn't much better. Only two Leopards averaged in double figures, and leading scorer Andrew Brown (13.6 ppg) graduated. The other double figure scorer, G Jeff Kari (10.7 ppg, 2.7 apg) returns, as do three players who were close, sophomore F Ryan Willen (9.4 ppg), junior F Jared Mintz (9.2 ppg), and senior guard Michael Gruner (8.2 ppg). The sophomore class and the Leopards' quiet frontcourt will need to step up for Fran O'Hanlon's squad to escape the basement.
American (last NCAA: 2009) The Eagles acquitted themselves well in two straight NCAA appearances, but will have a hard time getting back to those heights after losing all five starters off last year's league champions. American picks up 6-10 F Vlad Moldoveanu in mid-December. He makes the short trip to DC from George Mason. Moldoveanu and 6-8 soph Stephen Lumpkins (3.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg) will anchor the Eagles' frontcourt, while swimgman Nick Hendra (6.3 ppg) will have to develop into a scorer. Head coach Jeff Jones has a five-man freshman class coming to campus that may need to step up immediately to keep AU from falling too far in the standings. 6-1 frosh Daniel Munoz is expected to replace 11.7 point and 4.4 assist per game performer Derrick Mercer at the point, an unenviable position for a newcomer.
Navy (last NCAA: 1998) The Middies finished in third place last season, but they'll be hard pressed to repeat that accomplishment after losing leading scorer Kaleo Kina (18.0 ppg) and forward Adam Teague (10.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) to graduation and active service. The good news is that second leading scorer Chris Harris, a 6-2 guard who averaged more than 15 points per contest is back. So is defensive stalwart Romeo Garcia, who missed most of last season with hamstring problems. Garcia will help bolster the defense, and if Navy can replace Kina and Teague's scoring, they can replicate their average from last season (71 ppg) and finish quite a bit higher in the standings.
Bucknell (last NCAA: 2006) The Bison weren't very good in Dave Paulsen's first season, winning only once on the road and seven times overall. They should do far better this season, as they return four starters including 6-8 big man Patrick Behan (13.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and guards Bryan Cohen (11.8 ppg) and Darryl Shazier (7.8 ppg, 4.6 apg). They also get 2007-07 Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Stephen Tyree back from an ACL tear. Tyree's return and a second year in Paulsen's system should lead to a marked improvement in the Bison's fortunes this season.
Colgate (last NCAA: 1996) Like Bucknell, the Raiders also get a a key player back off a season lost to injury. 6-3 swingman Kyle Roemer, a threat for all-conference honors received a sixth year of eligibility. Roemer will return to a team that is among the most balanced in the conference, as three players, guard Mike Venezia (10.8 ppg) and forwards Yaw Gwayu (10.2 ppg) and Ben Jonson (10.4 ppg) averaged in double figures last season. Seeing as Roemer averaged over 16 points in his last season, Colgate shouldn't have much trouble scoring; however, they have had trouble with possession. The Raiders will have to follow the example of point guard Anthony Hill and take better care of the ball. They'll also have to find a way to replace Alex Woodhouse's rebounds and blocks (6.3 rpg, 1.8 bpg) to be successful.
Army (last NCAA: None) The big question for the Cadets is whether the team can adjust to Spiker's system. Jim Crews believed in distributing playing time, as 12 players saw regular action last year. This paid off as Army won six league games for the second year in a row, not bad for a team that averaged two league wins a year during the five seasons before. Despite this equity, 6-4 G/F Cleveland Richard is the arguably the Black Knights' most important player, as he averaged 12 points a game while grabbing 3 boards a contest and at least a steal per game. Marcus Nelson was the conference Defensive Player of the Year and the 5-11 guard is sure to give the opposition headaches. Army's weakness is in the frontcourt, where no pure forward averaged more than 2.9 points per contest.
Lehigh (last NCAA: 2004) The Mountain Hawks have arguably the most star power in the conference, as they feature 6-7 F Zahir Carrington, the defending Pat League rebounding champ (8.6 rpg) who can also score (14 ppg) and guard Marquis Hall (13.9 ppg, 4.1 apg). However, Carrington is foul prone, which limits his effectiveness. This could be problematic this season as C Phil Anderson graduated. Hall also attracts a lot of defensive attention because of his flexibility. Point guard Prentice Small (5.5 ppg, 3.2 apg) can take some of the pressure off Hall, as can the 2007-08 conference Newcomer of the Year, Rob Keefer (8.8 ppg). If the Mountain Hawks can find a way to take some of the spotlight away from their stars, they could soar.
Holy Cross (last NCAA: 2007) Sean Kearney has an excellent chance to make the NCAA Tournament in his first year at the helm. Last year's Patriot League Newcomer ot the Year, SG R.J. Evans (13.4 ppg) is back, anchoring a backcourt that also features 3-point specialist Andrew Beinert (8.5 ppg, shooting 45.4% from beyond the arc) and Mike Cavataio, a transfer from St. John's. 6-9 C Andrew Keister (8.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and 6-8 C/F Eric Meister (6.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is the best forward tandem with last names that are off by a single letter in the country. Seriously, they are one of the best forward groups in the league, though they will have to produce a little more with the graduation of Colin Cunningham, who was a versatile performer for the Crusaders last season, scoring over 8 a game while grabbing nearly 5 boards and dishing out 3.5 assists per game. If Kearney keeps the Crusaders focused on defense and rebounding (the Cross was 13th in Division I in rebounding margin last season), he'll find his team in the field of 65.
So, the Crusaders are my preseason pick for the Patriot League crown. You'll see them in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket on November 9. Now, to wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-Patriot League team, featuring the best returning players from last season.
Preseason All-Patriot League Team
Player of the Year: R.J. Evans, 6-3 G, So. (Holy Cross)
Remainder of the Team
Zahir Harrington, 6-7 F/C, Sr. (Lehigh)
Marquis Hall, 5-11 G, Sr. (Lehigh)
Cleveland Richard, 6-4 G/F, Sr. (Army)
Kyle Roemer, 6-3 G/F, Sr. (Colgate)