Lehigh and Lafayette have both made the NCAA tournament before - three times. The Leopards and Mountain Hawks have made it to the title game about a half dozen times since the tournament field expanded to 64.
There have even been a few pretty good tournament games with Lehigh and Lafayette facing off.
But never at the same time, and never in a game of this magnitude. (more)
Sure, there have been some good ones. In 1987 - the senior year of G Darren Queenan and G Mike Polaha - the Engineers and Leopards played a thriller, with Polaha getting 35 points and Lehigh holding on to a heart-stopping 67-65 victory. In 2000, in a game documented in the book The Last Amateurs by John Feinstein, Lehigh gave Lafayette all they could handle though Lafayette would win that game 66-60 and - ultimately - beat Navy for their third-ever NCAA tournament appearance. And in 2001, Lehigh beat the Leopards 83-71 to deny them a chance a three straight Patriot League titles.
But incredibly, since then Lehigh and Lafayette have not met each other since 2001 in the playoffs - and never the biggest game of them all, the championship. That's what makes the game tomorrow so unique and so thrilling: it's a first in the history of *all* the men's basketball postseason tournaments that Lehigh and Lafayette have ever been involved with.
You'll have to forgive this Lehigh fan (and all Lehigh and Lafayette fans) for believing that this is the way it should be. If Lehigh or Lafayette has a chance to make it through the tournament to the NCAAs, we want the road to go through the school that's our biggest rival. Beating Bucknell is dandy, Holy Cross divine, American amazing. But give me a win over Lafayette to take the title anyday.
Lehigh and Lafayette are entering this game from two very different perspectives.
The Mountain Hawks were the team, entering this season, that were the Anointed Ones. This was the year that captains senior G Marquis Hall and senior F Zahir Carrington were supposed to blossom into a powerful 1-2 punch and coast their way through the Patriot League into their just rewards: a championship and NCAA tournament bid. In the preseason, Lehigh was expected to be the victor at the end of the season, with Hall averaging double-digit scoring a game and senior G Dave Buchburger doing the dirty work to allow Hall to be player of the year.
In practice, though, it took a while for this team to gel - and it required two brand-new faces to step up and work their way into this team. Freshman F Gabe Knutson gave quality time as a big-man complement to Carrington - and delivered in some mid-season games where he was needed the most. But while Knutson gave Lehigh a much-needed extra body underneath, it's the other freshman that has stolen the show.
Freshman G C.J. McCollum started out with a few freshman jitters - but still managed double-digit scoring in many of his games. And C.J. got better and better as the season went along - imporving his scoring to over 22 points per league game (as a freshman!) and - what should be frightening to the rest of the league - actually added extra dimensions to his game that some players never master in four years as undergrads. There's no official stat for "butter moves", but C.J. seemed to make 3-4 of them a game by the end of the season.
Even so, it took a while for the team to adjust to head coach Dr. Brett Reed's new reality: Hall becoming more of a true point guard with the ability to knock down the 3, McCollum becoming a scoring machine, Buch finally getting healthy and doing the little things to win basketball games, junior G Prentice Small and junior G Michael Ojo adjusting to their lives as sixth men and Knutson/Carrington becoming a solid rebounding punch underneath. McCollum is no longer a secret nationally, as he's picking up national awards left and right these days, but Lehigh fans are hoping that some of the growing pains will result in a Patriot League championship.
Lafayette, on the other hand, was picked in the preseason to be in the outhouse. Eighth place out of eight teams, with an extremely young team. With only one senior in the starting five, senior G Michael Gruner, the Leopards were expected to struggle with the league heavyweights this year.
How the Leopards proved them all wrong.
Like Lehigh - and the rest of the Patriot League - the Leopards struggled out of the gate a little starting 4-5 (granted one of those losses came to Georgetown, who is a mortal lock for a high seed in the NCAA tournament). But suddenly in January, things started to click and Lafayette started to win basketball games.
Behind the frontcourt play of junior F Jared "Double" Mintz and sophomore F Ryan Willen, Lafayette was somewhat surprisingly able to perform extremely well underneath against some of the plodding, defensive teams in the league this year. And - as Lehigh learned in Kirby Field House last month - when sophomore G Jim Mower (13.9 ppg) and a slew of Leopards including junior G Ben Wheeler and senior G Jeff Kari get hot from 3-point land, Lafayette ususally wins.
The genius of Leopard head coach Fran O'Hanlon's system is that such a variety of outside shooters become available in a screen-and-shoot system that you can't key on one guy from the outside. And when you take charge on the perimeter, then Willen and Mintz beat you inside. That's who O'Hanlon won a well-deserved Coach of the Year award.
In so many ways, these teams are similar - not overpowering frontcourts, but explosive backcourts that are huge scoring weapons. The only difference is one of personalities: Lehigh has a star, McCollum, that you have to shut down, while Lafayette has more of a system that you need to shut down. Both tasks are extremely difficult for opposing teams.
How can Lehigh do it?
1. Get out to a good start. There may not be time for early-game jitters - a quick start for Lehigh could go a long way towards controlling the game offensively. It worked like a charm vs. American: if they can do it again vs. Lafayette, I like our chances.
2. Win it inside. Willen and Mintz are great Patriot League players, but I still like Carrington's and Knutson's matchup with them I'd be tempted to throw sophomore F John Adams under there too to get some extra presence underneath.
3. Key on the perimeter. I think Lehigh can win the matchup underneath, even with a two forward set, so I would have Buchburger harassing the outside shooters and disrupting their rhythm at all costs. Crucial to Lehigh's chances will be to keep them from having the same 19-for-26 from 3-point land that they had last time we played them.
It should be one for the ages tomorrow - a possible sellout, but for sure a rocking Stabler Arena. And you'll have to forgive us if we say that that's the way we wish it could be all the time, every year. We don't know if we'll be treated to this matchup again soon - so indulge us as we enjoy it tomorrow.