WASHINGTON — It’s not technically March Madness, but conference tournament time is here after an underwhelming regular season for most of the local schools. Yes — I know that Virginia is No. 1 in the nation and Virginia Tech is fresh off wins over the Cavaliers and No. 5 Duke, but the bulk of the Beltway schools struggled in conference play. Unlike previous years where at-large bids were possibilities, the only route to the field of 68 for Maryland, Georgetown and others involves winning a conference tournament championship. Of course, for Patriot League teams like American and Navy, that’s always true.
The league is one of many “one-bid” conferences, which means a team must win the tournament to get a berth into the 68-team NCAA tournament field. The Patriot League holds each round on campus sites, giving home games to the higher seeds. That places a lot of value on the 18-game regular season, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a thing. Just twice since 2011 has the regular season champ won the tournament, and two years ago, the road teams went 5-4 as 9th-seeded Holy Cross advanced.
Team to Beat
Bucknell won its fourth-straight regular season title, going 16-2, with 12 of those wins coming by 10 points or more. The Bison lost just once at home this winter (to Boston University Jan. 2). They led the conference in scoring and shooting, while also defending the 3-point shot best.
Players to Watch
Bucknell’s Zach Thomas led the league in scoring and rebounding (21 points, 9 rebounds per game) en route to winning MVP honors; last March, as a junior, he averaged 18 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists to help the Bison cut down the nets in the Patriot League Tournament. Lehigh’s Lance Tejada paced the conference in three-point shooting percentage as well as made 3-pointers per game. Army’s Tommy Funk was tops in assists — and possesses one cool name.
American actually owns the best record in Patriot League Tournament history – the Eagles’ .622 winning percentage is a whisker better than Bucknell’s .621. Of course, the Bison have been in the league 12 more seasons than AU, but that’s splitting hairs.
Tuesday’s First Round: #10 American (6-23, 3-15 Patriot League) at #7 Lafayette (9-20, 7-11)
The Leopards won both regular season games against the Eagles, shooting 65 percent from the field (and 75 percent from 3-point range) Feb. 17 in a 90-85 triumph. They also have the conference’s Rookie of the Year in guard Alex Petrie, while senior Matt Klinewski discovered his 3-point shot this winter, hitting 48 of 110 attempts after attempting just four (all misses) in his first three seasons. The Leopards had issues taking care of the ball this winter, ranking last in the league in turnover margin. As befits a team that enters the tournament having lost 10 of 11, AU ranks last in the conference in shooting, rebounding, stopping the three and defending shots in general. Coach Mike Brennan does have a decent combination in freshman forward Sam Iorio and sophomore guard Sa’eed Nelson. Both will need to produce for the Eagles to have hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals.
Thursday’s Quarterfinal: #3 Navy (20-11, 11-7 Patriot League) vs. #6 Holy Cross (11-18, 8-10)
Yes, you read that correctly — the Midshipmen have won 20 games for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. Their 5-1 sprint to the finish began with a 69-34 win on the Crusaders’ home court, a game where they were without first team all-conference guard Shawn Anderson due to illness. The senior came back with a healthy shot, making more than 50 percent of his attempts since returning to the lineup. Rebounding knows no virus, and no team was better than the Mids on the glass in the Patriot League this winter. The offensively challenged Crusaders (last in the conference in scoring) boast the Defensive Player of the Year in junior Jehyve Floyd (2.2 blocks per game), who is also their best offensive weapon after shooting a league-best 65.7 percent this winter. Holy Cross won four of their last five road games and took Navy to overtime in Annapolis. It’s been 20 years since Navy won the conference tournament, so no one is advancing the Mids to the semifinals just yet.
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