The beginning of March represents a special time in college basketball.
It is during this time that programs, regardless of how well-known they are, have a chance to be in the spotlight. Schools from 31 different Division I Conferences in college basketball will be competing in their conferences’ championship tournaments. It is a time filled with both joy and heartbreak, since most schools outside the power conferences, such as the Atlantic Coast Conference, need to win their conference tournaments or they won’t receive a bid to the NCAA tournament.
“During conference championship time, the level is stepped up to a level that is unseen and unheard of before you get to that time,” sophomore forward/center Tim Kempton said. “People are playing for their lives.”
The Lehigh Mountain Hawks begin playing in the Patriot League Conference Tournament on Thursday as the No. 3 seed with a 10-8 regular season conference record.
Ever since Wednesday’s 84-65 victory over Bucknell University, the Hawks have known that they would be playing Thursday’s quarterfinal game on their home court as a guaranteed top four seed. When the ashes settled on Saturday and Lehigh lost at Colgate University 61-55, it was determined that the Hawks would receive a three seed.
This means that the sixth seeded American University Eagles will be the Thursday opponent. The Eagles won the Patriot League Tournament last year as the two seed, but slipped a little this year as a team that finished 8-10 in the conference.
The two teams split the season series, with each coming out victorious only on its own home court. Six of the Hawks’ ten conference wins came at home this year.
When compared to the other tournaments taking place around country, one aspect that could make this tournament unique is the large amount of parity. It is the only conference where every team finished with both double-digit wins and double-digit losses overall. Although Bucknell finished in first place with 13 conference wins, there really is no overwhelming favorite, and no team can be counted out.
“As we head into the Patriot League Tournament, anything can ultimately happen because there is not your traditional weaker team within our league,” coach Brett Reed said. “Any team that finishes in the bottom of the league standings still has demonstrated that it has the ability to knock off or upset even what could be considered a stronger team.”
Lehigh has seen contributions from some talented younger players this season. Kempton leads the team with 15.1 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game. His sophomore classmate, guard Austin Price, is second on the team averaging 11.6 points per game. Additionally, as a new starter, freshman point guard Kahron Ross has improved significantly. Ross, the team assists leader with 5.8 per game, has also developed into a scoring threat, with double-digit points in nine of his last 11 games.
The team also has seen some meaningful minutes from bench players. Several of them, particularly junior forward Jesse Chuku, sophomore guard Miles Simelton and freshman guard Brandon Alston, have helped make the team much deeper and more versatile.
Unlike those players though, the seniors — guard Corey Schaefer, guard Stefan Cvrkalj and forward Conroy Baltimore — experienced a conference tournament championship, as well as a win in the NCAA Tournament, as players on the 2011-12 team. The experience that they take away from that year could be valuable to this year’s team.
“(The seniors) are attempting to emulate the positive characteristics of (the 2011-12 team) through their leadership practices,” Reed said. “Each of those guys has been about the right things throughout the season.”
Last year as the six seed, the Hawks were knocked out of the tournament with a loss to College of the Holy Cross in the quarterfinals. As a freshman starter for the 2013-14 season, Kempton made an important distinction between the current team and that team.
“There’s not just one leader on the court, compared to Mackey McKnight (Class of 2014 point guard) who was pretty much the sole leader last year,” he said. “His voice was the only one that would be expressed, compared to this year.”
Now, Kempton is one of several players that are comfortable stepping into that role.
“You have several guys on the court at all times who are pretty good vocal leaders and willing to bring everyone in for this common goal that is hopefully going to become a reality in the two weeks coming up,” he said.
For Lehigh, the Patriot League Tournament begins with a home game against American on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Stabler Arena. If the Mountain Hawks win, they will play again March 8, either at Colgate University or at home against Army or Navy, depending on who wins that match-up. Should they win in the semifinals, the Hawks would participate in the finals March 11 at 7:30 p.m. Four days after that is Selection Sunday, when teams find out where they are in the bracket for the NCAA Tournament.
“The opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament and make a lifetime of memories happen is all within our reach,” Reed said. “Having our student population engage in that journey, in our march towards the NCAA Tournament, can be a huge benefit for us and a great experience for them.”