Patriot League conference tournament preview

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What the Patriot League lacked this season in overall talent it made up for in drama down the stretch.

Bucknell headed into the final few weeks of the season with a three game lead in the conference standings over both Lehigh and American. But Player of the Year CJ McCollum of Lehigh drilled a last-second three to beat the Bison and Holy Cross pulled off an upset, meaning that Bucknell held the slimmest of one game leads in the country.

On a two-game losing streak and seeing their three game lead over Lehigh and American evaporate, the Bison next played the Eagles, who had a chance to turn the Patriot League into a three-horse race. But no dice. Bucknell won 55-50 at American to all-but seal up their second straight regular season title.

The Bracket

Where: Site of higher seed

When: Feb. 29th-Mar. 7th

Final: March 7th, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Favorite: Bucknell

Mike Muscala came into the season as the reigning Patriot League Player of the Year, and while he lost out on that award to McCollum this season, it doesn’t change the fact that he may be the most dominant presence in the conference. How often do you see 6’11” centers with a back-to-the-basket game and the ability to grab double-figure rebounds come through the Patriot League? He’s not alone, either. Sharpshooting Cameron Ayers and the blue collar Joe Willman deserve praise as well.

And if they lose?: Lehigh

I know this isn’t the studs section, but I’m going to write about CJ McCollum here. He is just absolutely sensational, a high-major talent that some have speculated could end up being the next Jeremy Lin. He stands just 6’3″ and averages 21.7 ppg, but he also grabs 6.6 rpg and hands out 3.4 apg. Should I mention he is also the team’s best perimeter defender, collecting 2.5 spg? He hasn’t been as consistent with his jump shot the past two seasons, but he’s timely — he hit the game-winning three (that came on a vicious cross-over leading into an off-balance, pull-up jumper) that kept the Patriot League race a race. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gabriel Knutson here as well.

Sleepers: American has thrived this season, finishing third in the conference as Vanderbilt transfer Charles Hinkle morphed into one of the best players in the league. The Eagles only went 1-3 against the top two in the league, however, stealing a win over Lehigh at home. The team to watch out for is Holy Cross. They have won six in a row and own a win over both Bucknell and Lehigh.

Studs:

CJ McCollum, Lehigh: He was the Patriot Player of the Year as a freshman and then won it again as a junior.

Mike Muscala, Bucknell: Muscala was the reason that McCollum didn’t win the award last season.

Charles Hinkle, American: We talk about the most-improved players in the country, but we never mention Hinkle. After transferring to American from Vanderbilt as a sophomore, Hinkle saw his scoring go from 4.5 ppg as a junior to 18.8 ppg as a senior. Impressive.

Ella Ellis, Army: He averaged 17.7 ppg this season, which obviously means that I had to point out that name. Ella Ellis cannot go overlooked!

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.