Friday, February 29, 2008

The LFN Basketball Challenge

I have a lot of backlog to cover: Marist's acceptance into the Pioneer Football league, reducing by one the already thin pool of potential Patriot League schools; the football awards ceremony, which took place some weeks back; and even talk about spring football. But right here, right now, this weekend only two things matter athletically against our (second) biggest hoops rival.

The Lady Hawks face a good possibility of being the #1 seed throughout the Patriot League tournament if they beat Holy Cross tomorrow, in Worcester, at 1PM. If they win, they won't only get a great seed for the tournament but also enact some revenge on the Crusaders after they escaped Stabler with a win in January. But unless you live in Massachusetts, the best you can do is listen online or catch it on 91.3 FM in the Valley.

It's tonight, at Stabler, where Lehigh will have their best chance to host a home tournament game this Wednesday. It may as well be a playoff game against Holy Cross: the loser will probably be mired in the lower seeding in the tournament and will most likely have to travel to Washington, DC.

And here is the challenge, to alumni, students and fans.

Go to the game.

I know, I know. It's at 9:00PM on a Friday night. There's lots you could be doing. Going on the Hill. Heading to the Tally Ho. Spending time with your family. Practicing your bugle playing. Parking yourself in front of a barstool, or maybe even your own HD-TV, and watching the game tonight on ESPNU.

The weather is supposed to be bad, with the chance of snow. And the school doesn't make it easy to go to games sometimes, reportedly posting breathalysers on buses over to Goodman and Stabler to see games.

But this sort of game is what college basketball is all about. Two league rivals. A young Lehigh team that simply cannot seem to beat the Crusaders year in and year out. A Holy Cross team who featured players who played in the Big Dance last year. And although it's not a playoff game, it may as well be billed as such, since the loser will probably drop to Navy or American next Wednesday.

This is Division I basketball. It's the same division as Georgetown, Alabama, Kansas and Memphis. The winner of the Patriot League will earn the right to line up, toe to toe, with a Memphis or a Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. The one that everyone in the office follows, whether they've heard of Drake or not.

Lehigh has a reputation as a football school. Admittedly, football is my main passion for Lehigh. But running a close second with me is the men's and women's basketball teams. I've been to quite a few Patriot League tournaments. When Lehigh beat American for their first tournament since 1987, I was there. When Lehigh's women team faced off against the UConn women at Gampel Pavillion, I was there. I even went to the ECC tournament at Towson when Lehigh made the finals and had a shot at the big dance that year.

Stabler can rock for this game, and Stabler can rock for a first-round playoff matchup on Wednesday. I know this. All people need to do is get up from in front of their TVs and get over to Stabler. Tickets are a bargain, and the ESPNU cameras will be there. For students, it's a free ride to Stabler to see a shot at the Big Dance. For alumni, at $5 a ticket it's the best show in town.

The Hill will still be open after the game. So will the Tally Ho. Just go! Get loud! Scream your head off at coach Willard! Make Stabler a real home-field advantage, not a mausoleum! Get on ESPNU! Get nuts!

Stabler holds more than 3,000 fans when Lafayette comes to town. I've got to believe that the folks in the Valley can manage at least 1,600 screaming fans and students at Stabler. And if you get that - the loud fans, the energy in the air, the rivalry between the two schools - there will be no better place to be tonight anywhere in the Lehigh Valley.

Just go!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Your Guide to the Patriot League Basketball Races

It doesn't get much uglier than a 50-39 win for the Mountain Hawks, but undoubtedly we'll take it. Big-time credit goes to the defense, who allowed two-time NCAA Tournament participant Darren Mastropaolo to a team-high 8 points (!) and held Bucknell to an amazing 15-for-45 shooting night in Bucknell's worst offensive output in 9 years. As for our offense, a surprise: freshman G Rob Keefer erupted for a career-high 17 points for the victory, while senior F Bryan White added 8 rebounds and sophomore G Marquis Hall added 5 assists.

The win allowed Lehigh to stay in the hunt for a first-round home game next week in the first round of the Patriot League tournament. How do I know? I did the math, and I'll explain it to you, dear Reader, as well, below.

Start with American and Navy, both 9-4 in the Patriot League and have clinched first-round playoff games. American finishes at home versus Lafayette, while Navy travels to Hamilton to play Colgate.

Navy won the season series against American (77-66, and 83-68 last night). Therefore, they're in the pole position. A win against Colgate, and they've sealed home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. If they falter, and American beats Lafayette, the Eagles will steal the #1 spot from the Midshipmen.

It's in spots 3 through 8 where things get complicated.

Every team in this stratosphere (Army, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lehigh, Lafayette) either has 7 or 8 losses. Furthermore, it's quite conceivable that all six teams end the year with 8 losses (if Navy and American both win, Holy Cross beats Lehigh, and Army beats Bucknell).

That's when you go to the tiebreaker formula. From the Patriot League website, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head matchups between tiebreaker teams. Second is "comparison of records" against the final order of finish, starting at the #1 seed and going down to the #8 seed. Third is RPI.

Right now, Lafayette, Colgate, Lehigh and Bucknell are 6-7 in Patriot League play. Holy Cross and Army are 5-8.

Going into this weekend, here's the records of each team against each other:

Bucknell: Lehigh 0-2, Lafayette 1-1, Colgate 2-0. Total 3-3.
Add Army: 0-1 (1 game to play).
Add Holy Cross: 1-1.

Colgate: Lehigh 1-1, Lafayette 1-1, Bucknell 0-2. Total 2-4.
Add Army: 1-1.
Add Holy Cross: 2-0.

Lafayette: Lehigh 1-1, Bucknell 1-1, Colgate 1-1. Total 3-3.
Add Army: 1-1.
Add Holy Cross: 1-1.

Lehigh: Lafayette 1-1, Bucknell 2-0, Colgate 1-1. Total 4-2.
Add Army: 2-0
Add Holy Cross: 1-0 (1 game to play).

In a nutshell, Lehigh holds the tiebreaker Bucknell (2-0) and all the scenarios that have Bucknell in a tie with Lehigh for a spot. And even if they lose to Holy Cross and Army beats Bucknell, Lehigh still will hold the overall tiebreaker.

For completeness, here's Army and Holy Cross' head-to-head records as well:

Army: Lehigh 0-2, Lafayette 1-1, Bucknell 1-0, Colgate 1-1, Holy Cross 1-1. Total 4-5 (1 game to play).
Holy Cross: Lehigh 1-0, Lafayette 1-1, Bucknell 1-1, Colgate 0-2, Army 1-1. Total 4-5 (1 game to play).

It's when Lehigh gets to the second tiebreaker where things get crazy, and they start losing. American beat Lehigh twice. If Lafayette beats American, they will tie on the first tiebreaker (1-1) and hold the second tiebreaker against us by virtue of their win over American. If Colgate is tied with us, they will tie on the first tiebreaker (1-2), tie with us with an 0-2 record against American, and then win by virtue of their win over Navy (Lehigh went 0-2 versus Navy).

What you, the Lehigh fan, need to know is that we want Bucknell with us since we went 2-0 against them and thus helps our head-to-head tiebreakers. So for Lehigh fans, as important as winning on Friday night against Holy Cross is, Bucknell beating Army is also very important to our chances as well.

The third tiebreaker is RPI. Here is every teams' "Real Time RPI" as well as their overall record:

110 American 17-11
142 Holy Cross 15-12
173 Lafayette 15-13
185 Colgate 15-13
200 Navy 16-12
209 Bucknell 11-17
235 Lehigh 13-14
236 Army 12-15

For Lehigh, RPI does not enter into calculations. They will sink or swim based on the first tiebreaker - which favors Lehigh as long as Bucknell (and possibly Army) is with them - and the second tiebreaker, which hurts Lehigh since they went 0-2 versus both American and Navy.

The Friday game is a huge one for both Lehigh and Holy Cross. If Holy Cross loses, they are virtually guaranteed to be the 8th seed (being able to finish no higher than 6th). But if they win, they can hold out hope to host a first-round game as the 4th seed in one scenario (Colgate bets Navy, American beats Lafayette, and Army beats Bucknell). Worse for Lehigh, if Lehigh loses and Bucknell wins, Holy Cross will be in a tie for fifth or sixth place - which gives the advantage to the Crusaders since they won the season series versus Lehigh 2-0. So Lehigh could very easily go from the 3rd seed and hosting a first-round game to becoming the 7 seed and facing a trip to Washington, DC or Annapolis, MD.

Dizzy yet? The bottom line is this: if Lehigh wins, in the eight scenarios of a Lehigh win seven of them involve playing at Stabler on Wednesday. (Thanks to Hoop Time for the 16 possible breakdowns.) If both Lehigh and Bucknell win, Lehigh is guaranteed the #3 seed.

And who they're playing will be anyone's guess - and will undoubtedly be a dangerous team no matter who it is.

As for Lafayette, there are a multitude of scenarios which involve the RPI tiebreaker. They can finish anywhere from 3rd to 6th, and if they pull off the upset at American they will host a first-round game. Furthermore, if Lehigh wins, Lafayette loses and either Colgate AND Bucknell win or Colgate AND Bucknell lose - we'll see Lehigh host the Leopards in the "rubber match" at Stabler. There's even one scenario where Lafayette is the #4 seed and will host Lehigh as the #5 seed: if Lehigh, Lafayette, Colgate and Army all win.

[Thanks to all the message-board people who set me straight on all the scenarios, and special thanks to Hoop Time who checked with the league office.]

What About the Women?
The Lady Hawks (17-11, 9-4) aren't in quite as much of a must-win situation, but after a 55-48 win this weekend (behind the 17 point effort of super freshman G Erica Prosser), they guaranteed themselves at least one home game in the women's Patriot League tournament. They also find themselves in unfamiliar territory: rooting for Lafayette to beat American (16-12, 10-3).

Why? Because if American loses and Lehigh beats Holy Cross this Saturday up in Worcester, MA (in a revenge match after getting robbed at home on February 2nd), Lehigh will claim the #1 seed throughout the tournament - no matter what Army (18-10, 9-4) does. That's because Lehigh would hold a 3-1 record against American and Army in a 3-way tie and since they went 1-1 against American would have a better overall record than American to win that tiebreaker.

Better yet, as long as they win Saturday they can finish no worse than #2, with a shot at taking the #1 overall seed. If they get that and win the first two rounds at Army, they'll be guaranteed to host the title game at Stabler.

Two more big games for the basketball program this weekend. Fingers crossed we'll get two bits of very good news against two Crusaders teams that have given the Hawks fits year in and year out.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

LFN Exclusive: Coach Coen On The Class Of 2012

I'm happy to bring an exclusive interview with Lehigh head football coach Andy Coen on the incoming recruiting class for this year. I managed to talk to pry him from his busy schedule to talk to him a bit about the incoming class. In the interview, he talks about some of the new players he's excited about, talks a bit about recruiting, and the new recruiting landscape.

LFN: As a fan, I was really happy about getting some good receivers and more good linemen.

Coach Coen: I'm really happy with the offensive line and the receiving corps. The linemen are all big kids, athletic kids, that's what I like and I'm excited about that group. They're all coming in here at about 280 lbs. At wide receiver we wanted to get some bigger kids as well.

LFN: There were a lot of names from Florida, a place where Lafayette has found a bunch of recruits the last three or four years.

Coach Coen: When I got here, I think Lafayette had fifteen or seventeen kids on their roster from Florida, and we had three or four. You can get good players anywhere, but now we've got some good name recognition down there.

This year, we got three kids from the Orlando area -- two kids from Lake Brantley, K Alex Smith and DB Colin Newton, and one down the street in Orlando in QB/DB Jonathan Littlejohn, who I think is a very good athlete. Then, we got the two kids from the southern part of the state, OL Vinny Pellegrini from Boca Raton and OL Jim Liebler from Miami.

We actually put two coaches down there this year - in the past we only had one coach down there. I think Florida should be a good resource for us every year. I think we have nine kids from the last two recruiting classes from Florida.

LFN: Do you feel that we're doing more recruiting nationally now?

Coach Coen: There's no question about it. You have to get your kids where the academic profiles are and find a kid that's the right fit, it's a challenge that way. It used to always be that we'd get [most of our players from the Lehigh Valley area]. And they used to be some of the better players. I would love to recruit the bulk of our kids locally, or from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It's not a possibility now.

There's always an ebb-and-flow, though. Next year, you could find a bunch more kids locally that fit academically, financially, and athletically.

Recruiting nationally starts by going through the different scouting services and the coaches familiarize themselves with their recruiting areas. We begin with a lot of those far-away kids over the telephone. You get tape in here from these kids, then you make a decision on a visit. We sent [offensive coordinator] Trey Brown out to Omaha, Nebraska in the middle of winter in a snowstorm - it was important to do that to make contact with Jake. I think Jake [Drwal, wide receiver from Omaha,] is a very good player and we're very excited to have him.

LFN: What do you think about coaches that say that highlight tapes can make anyone into a star?

Coach Coen: They do, but you watch the kids run. You can put kids on there that caught a hundred balls during the season. They look great catching the ball, but when they start to run, you realize they don't run as well as you'd like them to be able to run.

You can certainly hide certain things in highlight tapes, though. We like to see the highlight tapes but also like to see play them in games. Particularly linemen. You have to see a lineman play games. You've got to see what he does when he gets beat.

LFN: How do you approach recruiting and determining what needs should be addressed?

Coach Coen: When you approach recruiting in general, it's really a year-long process. The key is developing a relationship year-round with the recruits cumulating with the signing date.

We have different opportunities where the kids can come onto the Lehigh campus in the summertime, whether it's junior day or one of the other camps we have here, and we try to get as many kids on campus as possible so we can see them and they can get a feel for Lehigh.

As for needs, in the summertime I sit down and look at the depth in the program, where we need particular numbers at positions. I'm really happy after the last two recruiting classes that we finally have gotten good numbers in every group. The last two groups have not only given us good football players, but also good depth so we don't necessarily need to scramble and get a whole bunch of guys at one position to replace a big class that graduated.

We had that a little bit with the defensive backs last year - we had seven that graduated this year. But we were able to get four backs last year, anticipating that, and we got three or four backs this year, so we're in great shape there [now].

I think the best way to do it is to get to the point where you can recruit a "class" every year - everybody at every position every year. You get competition at each position, and get the best guys on the field. That's how you get good. That hasn't always been the case since I've been here.

LFN: Now that the recruiting class has been announced, I can't wait for spring football to start.

Coach Coen: We're starting March 20th, and the spring game will be April 19th.
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