Lehigh at Bucknell, 7 p.m. -- (Live Gameblog tonight) It has been five seasons since anybody swept the season series between Bucknell and Lehigh. Before that, it was a routine thing. From the 1986-87 season, when both teams still played in the old East Coast Conference, until the 1998-99 season, when Bucknell beat Lehigh twice in the regular season and again in the Patriot League semifinals, somebody swept the series every year.
Having already won in Stabler, with tonight's game, and any other game this season, likely to be played in Bucknell's Sojka Pavilion. it would not be a surprise to see the Bison break out those old brooms.
Lehigh likes to look back to last season, when the two split a pair, each holding serve at home in two games decided by a total of five points (Bucknell won by 2 in Sojka, Lehigh by 3 in Stabler). The Mountain Hawks look at the final score of the game at Stabler earlier this season, a 59-54 Bucknell win, and see it as a close game that portends another tight battle.
They might be right. Certainly the Mountain Hawks 11-1 mark in the league shows they are much better than they looked in the nonconference portion of the schedule, when even two Division 3 opponents were not enough to boost Lehigh to a .500 record.
The return of Joe Knight has a lot to do with Lehigh's turnaround since that 7-8 start. So has the overall weakness of the league. Only one of those wins, a one-point escape in Stabler, has come against a team with a .500 record. Knight, who shook off the rust in a hurry, is averaging 14.2 points per game. With Knight and Jose Olivero (17.6 ppg) Lehigh has the most explosive offensive pair of guards in the league. In the earlier loss to Bucknell, the pair double-handedly kept the Hawks in the game, combining for 40 of Lehigh's 54 points.
But 21 of those points came on seven combined three-pointers, many of those from well beyond the arc, usually with a hand in their face. Olivero, who is a 43.8 percent shooter from the arc, had 4 of those treys. Two of those came in the final minute, making the final score closer than the game.
There is no doubt Lehigh is capable of shooting the three. Kyle Neptune, who averages 11.1 ppg, and Mitch Gilfillan are also 35 percent shooters from the arc. But if Lehigh expects to upset Bucknell, it will need more in the middle. In the first meeting, the four guys who manned the four and five spots for the Mountain Hawks combined for 3 points and 12 rebounds (8 coming from James Anderson).
Lacking any attack in the paint, the Hawks were reduced to a jump shooting team with predictable results at the foul line. Lehigh only got to the stripe 8 times all night. Bucknell, which attacked the basket much more effectively, shot 25 free throws. Had they shot them better (they went 15 of 25), the final score would have been more reflective of the tenor of the game.
Another factor that helped keep that first game close was a struggling Charles Lee. Lee went 2 for 9 from the field in that game, 3 for 7 at the free throw line. The only worse shooting night Lee had all season came against Villanova. Part of that was Lehigh's defense. Overshadowed by Bucknell -- the Bison are ranked third in the nation in field goal percentage D -- Lehigh is no slouch on defense. The Hawks hold foes to 38.1 percent from the field, good for eighth in the national rankings. But part of it also was the slump Lee was in at the time. The Lehigh game capped a stretch of three games in a row in which Lee, who averages 12.4 ppg, failed to reach double figures. That was also the fifth of five straight games, and six in seven, where Lee shot worse than 50 percent from the field.
Since then Lee has scored in double figures in seven games in a row, including double-doubles in his last two games. Lee is averaging 16 points per game in that span.
All the pressure is on Lehigh. Sure Bucknell is looking at becoming the first Patriot League team ever to go unbeaten in conference play. But the Bison pretty much have the homecourt advantage for the whole tournament wrapped up, since a win Saturday over Army would clinch it even if they lost to Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks, on the other hand, know their weak out of conference schedule, and corresponding showing in those games, leaves them with no margin for error. They need to win here, and again Saturday at Holy Cross, just to hold on to the No. 2 seed. They lose any ties because of 157 RPI.
Why is home court important? Just look at the difference between Bucknell at home and on the road: The Bison are 9-1 at home this season, the only loss to No. 2 Villanova. At home, Bucknell scores and average of 7 points per game more and holds opponents to 10 ppg less -- that is a 17 point difference per game. As you'd expect, the Bison shoot the ball better (by 6 percentage points) in Sojka. Bucknell opponents shoot worse (by 7 percent).
Army at Lafayette. 7 p.m.: With its last two games at home, Lafayette has the inside track on one of the 4-5 spots in the tournament seeding. Especially since one of those games is against cellar-dweller Army, which has won two conference games, both against Navy, in the last two seasons.
Lafayette is 6-5 at home this season. But three of those losses came against Bucknell, Holy Cross and Lehigh. The Leopards already beat Army by 21 at West Point. Lafayette notes | Army notes | USA Today matchup
Holy Cross at Colgate, 7 p.m.: A must win for the Crusaders, who can't afford to be scoreboard watching when they meet the Raiders in Hamilton. Colgate finally beat somebody not named Army, edging Navy by three Saturday at Cotterell. The Raiders have been a puzzle all season long, consistently underperforming. How anyone can get less out of what seemed in the preseason to be the second-best roster in the league will be a mystery current undergrads in Hamilton will be talking about over beers at reunions for years to come.
Because of that perceived talent, the Raiders are respected beyond their 3-9 conference record. Lose to them here and there's a good chance HC needs to play them again, on a neutral floor in the first round of the tournament. Win here, and the Crusaders still might end up getting Colgate in the first round. But the difference between playing a down-and-out team that you have spanked twice already, quite possibly on your home floor, and playing a suddenly hot and confident team on a neutral floor is huge. HC notes | Colgate notes | Livestats | USA Today matchup | 'Gate radio | HC radio