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|With Mike Muscala (left) and C.J. McCollum gone, the Patriot League is wide open.|
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Filling voids in the Patriot League.
The 2012-13 season could have been a historic one for the Patriot League. Only two teams, Bucknell and Lehigh, have ever won NCAA tournament games as members of the Patriot League (Navy did its David Robinson-inflicted damage back when the Midshipmen were in the Colonial); this is not a conference in the habit of sending multiple teams to the NCAA tournament. But both the Bison and the Mountain Hawks had every reason to expect participation. Lehigh had C.J. McCollum, who returned after decimating No. 2-seeded Duke in the first round of the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Bison had Mike Muscala, one of the best forwards in the country at any level, a dominant interior scorer, rebounder and rim presence at both ends of the court. Two Patriot League All-Americans in the same season? An at-large bid? Bullishness dominated the 2012 offseason, and for good reason.
Bucknell went on to have an excellent season, finishing 28-6 and 12-2 atop the league, with a No. 11 seed in the tournament for their troubles. Lehigh, on the other hand, lost McCollum to an early injury. A noble effort by the remaining Mountain Hawks earned them a 10-4 second-place tie at season's end, but the chance to enjoy McCollum's offensive brilliance -- and unleash it on the NCAA tournament one last time -- was lost.
Now both players are gone -- McCollum to the NBA draft lottery, Muscala to Spanish club Blusens Monbús. The departures leave a massive void not only in terms of star power but in recent obvious preseason favorites, and the most interesting question ahead of the 2013-14 Patriot League is which program emerges to fill the void.
The answer may just come from realignment. The coming season is Boston University's first in the Patriot League; the Terriers officially completed their move from the America East this summer. And despite the new league, BU has the look of the favorite. Coach Joe Jones has every major contributor back in his lineup, and in a league suddenly up for grabs, that might be all the eventual champion really needs.
The answer could also come from an unexpected place: Army. That seems a little crazy, given Army's history; the Black Knights have never won the Patriot League, never earned an NCAA tournament bid. But as Mid-Major Madness's Benjamin Miraski wrote convincingly last month, the Black Knights still have a chance, even without leading scorer Ella Ellis, to surprise everyone -- provided Army can play even halfway-decent defense every now and again.
And what about Bucknell? Muscala was everything for the Bison; the gulf between their records before and after his arrival are a matter of causation, not correlation. Losing senior forward Joe Willman will take a toll, too. But with three starters back from a team that has dominated the league, it seems silly to write Dave Paulsen's team off.
Which is exactly why the Patriot League could be so fun this season. Bucknell could be down; Lehigh could struggle. The overused term "wide open" genuinely applies here. Anything is possible.