The Lehigh men’s basketball 2015-16 season didn’t exactly end the way the players wanted it to.
After losing in the finals of the Patriot League Tournament last March to Holy Cross, Lehigh came into this season with a little extra motivation.
“From last year, losing that championship game, when I think everybody in that gym knew that we should have won it, that just added a little fuel to the fire,” senior captain Devon Carter said.
The team’s redemption hasn’t come yet, but the statistics show it might not be too far away.
So far this season, the Mountain Hawks have won over 60 percent of their games, the highest mark in four years. Their record stands at 17-11, while their conference record of 11-6 has them third in the Patriot League standings.
One factor toward this success is the team’s early-season schedule. Lehigh lost its first seven games last season against opponents that included national powerhouses like Syracuse University, University of Virginia and Purdue University. This season, Lehigh won two of its first four and only narrowly missed out on upsetting then-nationally ranked Xavier University in the opening game of the season.
Carter spoke of the effect losing those non-conference games early last season had on the team’s morale.
“Early in the conference games, our confidence was shot, and that was based off us feeling like we could beat any team in the country,” Carter said. “With the losses that we had last season, even though they were against great competition, we still felt that we could’ve done a lot better.”
However, Carter also acknowledged that playing those teams helped prepare Lehigh later in the season after the players realized they held their own against some of the tougher teams in the country.
Having a higher winning percentage is always desired, but it doesn’t mean much if it only comes from having an easier schedule. For Lehigh, though, the underlying stats reinforce the improvements the team has made this season.
An area in which Lehigh has found great success is its shooting efficiency. The team is connecting on 48.5 percent of its field goal attempts, its highest percentage since the Patriot League’s inaugural 1990-91 season.
Lehigh is also shooting over 39 percent on 3-pointers for the second straight year and has hit nearly 78 percent of its free throws.
Assistant coach Harry Morra isn’t surprised by the team’s efficiency, noting how hard the players work even outside of practice.
“The guys that you see shooting high percentages are working 12 months a year on their shot, even now,” Morra said. “We’re in the second half of conference play, and we still have guys — before and after practice, late night, on off-days — guys just going in and working on their shot. The credit goes to them.”
As far as 3-pointers go, both Morra and Carter talked about how the interior presence of senior big man and two-time Patriot League Player of the Year Tim Kempton has helped to open up shots on the perimeter for the rest of the team.
Lehigh leads the Patriot League in all three percentages, but even that doesn’t fully quantify how efficient the team has been.
Out of the 351 NCAA Division I basketball teams, only two were in the top 25 in all three categories going into Wednesday night’s game. Lehigh was one of them.
“On paper, you could argue that this is one of the best shooting teams in the country,” Morra said.
Of course, there’s more to being a successful team than just shooting the ball well.
Lehigh has also excelled in rebounding this season, grabbing 3.3 more boards than its opponent on average. That is the team’s highest rebounding margin since the statistic started being recorded in the 2001-02 season and is the second-highest mark in the Patriot League.
Like the team’s efficient shooting, much of the credit can be attributed to Kempton. Even if he’s not bringing down every rebound, he’s motivating his teammates to do the work themselves.
“What Tim (Kempton) does, I think it’s great, especially in practice is that he’s such a great rebounder that we have no choice but to try to outwork him,” Carter said. “What that does for us is when we go up against other teams who don’t have Tim Kempton, it kind of makes it a little bit easier to get a rebound over them.”
Morra also applauded the job Kempton has done on the boards.
“He gets rebounds that bounce right to him and he gets rebounds that are outside of his range,” Morra said. “That dude is just wired to rebound.”
If there’s been one negative for Lehigh so far, it’s been the turnovers. The team is committing 14.3 turnovers per game, the most since the 2005 season, and its -1.4 turnover margin is its worst since at least the 2001-02 season.
Carter said because the team wants to win so badly and has such high expectations for itself, the players sometimes get into situations where they force the play a bit, resulting in the increased turnovers. He also noted that limiting turnovers has been an emphasis in practice and that the team has gotten better about it as a result.
The statistics agree with Carter. In the first 14 games of the season, the Mountain Hawks turned the ball over an average of 15.6 times per game, which on its own would be the highest number in the Patriot League. In the 14 games since, the team’s 13.1 mark would be the second-lowest.
With Lehigh playing some of its best basketball as of late, there is reason to believe the team can make another deep run in the Patriot League Tournament this season. Despite still focusing on one game at a time, Morra said last year’s finals loss provides that little extra incentive.
“Our guys have been really, really good about just getting better every day and throughout the season and playing better games, but we’d all be lying if in the back of our heads we’re not trying to get some type of redemption from last year,” Morra said.
Lehigh hasn’t won the tournament since its 2011-12 season in which it went on to upset Duke University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
No player on the roster was on the team for that historic win, but it’s still an example of what the program is capable of accomplishing.
“Since 2012, that’s kind of been what we expect now four or five years later,” Morra said. “Those guys have now seen what could be done in the program when they were being recruited, and now they’re here and now essentially it’s their team.”