After being projected to finish first in the Patriot League this season, the Mountain Hawks, plagued by injuries, sit at sixth place in the conference.
Lehigh (7-14, 5-5 Patriot) has been without freshman center Caleb Sedore, freshman forward Matt Holba and sophomore guard Brandon Alston, all of whom will be out for the remainder of the season. With Alston and the two promising rookies on the bench, the Hawks are left with a roster of just 10 active players, making for a short rotation.
For senior forward Jesse Chuku, who is averaging 9.8 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game this season, the short bench is something the team and coaching staff have to embrace.
“I think we definitely missed out on some great players that would make some impact on the game,” Chuku said. “We’ve adjusted, we’ve got a short rotation but we’ve definitely adjusted to that and made do with what we have.”
The Hawks have been on the losing end of two buzzer beaters this season. The first loss came at the hands of the Loyola University (Maryland) Greyhounds and the second came last Saturday at Boston University — both results of not finishing games well.
For junior guard Austin Price, who is averaging 13.8 points per game this season, lack of focus has contributed to the team’s mediocre start.
“We aren’t focused the whole entire game, I think that’s our main problem,” Price said. “We haven’t matured to the point where we can play our best basketball the whole game. When we play our best basketball we are just as good as most teams in the country.”
Some of the squad’s “best basketball” came in the second half of its season opener at Syracuse University on Nov. 13. However, an inconsistent first 20 minutes made way for a Lehigh loss, cementing a pattern for the team this season.
Despite the disappointing start to a promising season, the nature of the Patriot League allows for some optimism. For the Hawks to return to the NCAA Tournament — a feat they haven’t achieved since 2012 — they must win the conference tournament, a bracket in which each of the 10 teams are seeded. To help the team land a high seed and secure home court advantage, coach Brett Reed and his staff have been relying on their star player, junior center Tim Kempton.
Kempton, who is the conference’s reigning MVP, is averaging team-highs of 17.6 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game. The Scottsdale, Arizona, native is facing a variety of defensive schemes and double-teams in an effort to temper the skills of the post player. With opposing eyes on Kempton, Lehigh has seen a impact from freshman guard Kyle Leufroy. Leufroy is averaging 10.2 points per game as well as 4.1 rebounds per game, all while shooting a 39.7 percent from 3-point range.
The Hawks’ chance to earn a top seed in the Patriot League Tournament remains a possibility but will likely only come to fruition if focus on the end of games improves. Lehigh will host American University on Saturday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m.