Bison picked to repeat

It really came as no surprise yesterday when the Patriot League unveiled a preseason poll of league coaches and sports information directors that listed Bucknell as a unanimous pick to repeat as league champions.

O.K., technically it was not unanimous; Holy Cross did get two votes. But 14 of the 16 votes cast were for the Bison and since you are not allowed to vote for your own school, we can pretty easily figure out which coach and SID didn’t vote for Bucknell.

That doers not mean anybody is going to roll over and concede the title to the Bison. In fact, most of the coaches who spoke to the small handful of media on hand at College Sports Television’s Chelsea Piers studios predicted what might just be the most competitive season in the league’s 16-year history.

“Looking at it as neutrally as I can, I think we are in for a great show this year,” said American coach Jeff Jones. “There are some really good basketball teams.”

In fact, the consensus of the coaches seemed to be that should the Bison falter, any one of five other teams could step up to fill the void. Only Army, which should be better, but still not a contender, and Lafayette, which has been whacked by the combination of injuries and defections, appear to be out of the running at this point.

“The talent level in the league is better than it has ever been. I expect every team in the league to be better this year,” said Colgate coach Emmett Davis.

Davis’ team is one the coaches agreed could easily fit that description. Picked fourth in the preseason poll, the Raiders (like most teams in the league) are stacked in the backcourt. Last year’s leading scorer, Alvin Reed, returns, along with sharpshooters Kyle Roemer and Jon Simon.

While the Raiders lost second-team all league pick Andrew Zidar, their top inside player last year, the frontcourt should actually be stronger with the return to campus of the Chones boys, Kyle (6-6) and Kendall (6-7). Both missed last season due to academic problems.

“Those are two players who sat out a year and will be really, really good,” said Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard. “They could start for anybody in the league.”

The loss of springy. 6-8 sophomore Alex Woodhouse, who will likely miss the whole season due to a knee injury suffered in the first hour of the first practice of the season, hurts. But senior center Mark Daniels (6-9), who sat out last season with injuries is also back, leading Davis to feel pretty good about his team’s frontcourt.

“We will be better inside this year. There is no doubt about it,” Davis said.

One guy not so sure his team will be better inside this year is Willard, who lost three starters from his frontline of a year ago.

Unlike the last three or so seasons, Holy Cross enters this campaign with significant question marks.

“I knew we were going to be good last year. This year, I think we have a chance to be good,” Willard said.

The key will be the development of 6-10 sophomore Tim “The Big Purple Dog” Clifford and 6-7 senior Kevin Hyland. Both need to be more consistent this year, though, Willard says, if the Crusaders are to live up to their No. 2 advance billing or better.

The Crusaders will also need freshmen Colin Cunningham (6-7), Greg McCarthy (6-10), and Alex Vander Baan (6-8) to grow up in a hurry.

“The three freshmen are going to have to give us significant contributions,” Willard says.

That might be asking a lot. As Willard points out, “We don’t get big people in this league that are ready to play. If they were ready to play they would be at Notre Dame or Stanford or someplace.”

That does not mean anybody is counting Holy Cross out; not with a backcourt that features two preseason all-league picks in Keith Simmons and last year’s player of the year, Kevin Hamilton. Torey Thomas and Pat Doherty give the Crusaders two starter quality point guards, making Holy Cross’ backcourt as deep as any in the league.

It is so deep, that Willard says at times this season he expects to put a four-guard lineup on the floor.

Another team with a boatload, pardon the pun, of guards, is Navy. The Mids bring back their top three scorers from last season, including 6-5 swingman David Hooper, 6-1 guard Corey Johnson and 6-7 forward Matt Fannin.

Also back are: Greg Sprink, a 6-3 sniper from three-point range; 6-6 guard Leonard Green, who played in 27 games last season and 6-2 guard David Rhoiney, who played in 26.

Picked sixth in the preseason, the Mids could surprise if a couple of the six freshmen Billy Lange has added step up in a hurry.

With all those newcomers, Lange says Navy’s practices have been “a little bit like a romper room.” All six will play some this season, Lange says, with three or four likely to end up in the rotation by the time league play opens in January.

Lehigh might not have the depth in the backcourt that some other league teams boast, but with starters Jose Olivero and Joe Knight back, the Mountain Hawks match up with anybody in the league.

Knight’s tournament record showing against Colgate last season (45 points on 10-12 shooting from three-point range) might have been the highest scoring performance of any Division I player last year, but it was no fluke. The kid posted 40 on Vanderbilt as a sophomore at High Point in the Big south Conference before transferring to Lehigh.

If 6-10 junior Jason Mgebroff, an all-rookie pick two years ago, bounces back from a disappointing season last year, and a couple of the four highly touted freshmen emerge, Lehigh could be very dangerous.

Another team looking for youngsters to contribute is American. Especially in the early pasrt of the season, while they wait for 6-11 transfer Paulius Joneliunas to become eligible. Joneliunas becomes eligible in the second semester. Until then, the combination of 6-5 freshman Jordan Nichols, 6-5 sophomore Travis Lay and 6-8 freshman Brian Gilmore will need to get the job done opposite 6-10 junior Brayden Billbe up front.

“Those guys will have to play some important minutes for us early in the season,” Jones says.

Jones expects them to do it by committee.

“I don’t see one of them jumping that far ahead of the others,” he says.

Still, despite the frontcourt questions, with all-league pick Andre Ingram, point guard Lina Lekavicius and 6-5 swingman Sekou Lewis all back this season, it would not be a big surprise is the Eagles finished higher than the fifth place they were picked in the poll.

At the bottom of the league, this might be the season Army escapes the cellar, though only a drunkard or a fool would put the mortgage money on that possibility.

The shortest team in the league, of not the nation, last season, the Black Knights have added six freshmen who are 6-5 or taller to the roster, four of them seasoned by what amounts to a redshirt season at the Military Academy Prep School.

.Junior guard Matt Bell, who led Army in scoring last season, leads a group of 12 returnees from last year’s woeful squad that won but one game against a Division 1 opponent last season.

Lafayette, already handicapped by being the only school in the league that does not offer scholarships, took a big hit in the off season when Jamaal Douglas, arguably the team’s best player last season, decided to transfer.

The wrath of injuries that has sidelined a number of players has reached the point, says Leopards coach Fran O’Hanlon, that his wide recently asked him “Where do you recruit? At the hospital?”

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