Lehigh men's basketball players (from left) James Karnik, Jake Betlow, Reed Fenton and Jeameril Wilson during practice on Oct. 2, 2019, at Stabler Arena. The basketball season will begin Nov. 5, with a home game against Monmouth University. (Adele Hancock/B&W Staff)

Men’s basketball shifts from offensive to defensive mindset

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After establishing itself as one of the top offensive teams in the country last season, the Lehigh men’s basketball program faces an identity change following the departure of three of its top-four scorers.

A year following a 20-11 overall record and a crushing loss to Bucknell University in the semifinals of the Patriot League Tournament (97-75), Lehigh men’s basketball has endured a significant turnover in roster from last year’s team, which was ranked first nationally in three-point percentage. Six freshmen have joined the roster that lost starters Kyle Leufroy, Lance Tejada and Pat Andree.

Despite the roster turnover, expectations remain high for this year’s team.

Senior guard Jordan Cohen and junior center James Karnik are expected to be this season’s offensive leaders for Lehigh. Placing third and fifth in scoring in the 2018-2019 season, respectively, Cohen and Karnik will be first in line to make up for some of the 41.2 points per game lost by Leufroy, Tejada and Andree.

However, the Mountain Hawks are not in pursuit of the 2018-2019 season’s offensive strategies.

The 2019-2020 Mountain Hawks are presented with an opportunity to remodel their identity. Assistant coach Harry Morra expressed his excitement about the defensive side of the game.

“I think we’re going to be significantly better on defense,” Morra said. “Last year’s team was a very offensive-minded team, from the individual to the entire team. They were good defenders, but they weren’t next level. We have guys with the ability to take our defense to a whole different level.”

While having a talented offense is advantageous, Morra said a solid defense is just as necessary to win championships.

Players such as junior Marques Wilson and sophomores Jeameril Wilson and Nicholas Lynch will be tasked with picking up some of the scoring load, but it is unlikely that Lehigh will be as offensively-minded as it was last season. 

“We had a lot of scoring last year,” Karnik said. “Although we were a very talented team, having a lot of talent can only take you so far — it’s a lot of attitude. This year, we have a lot of guys who want to share it, even if they aren’t the main offensive option, and they will still be able to keep their head in the game.”

Morra said a heightened sense of competition and excitement are already recognizable in practices as the young players on the roster are eager to prove themselves deserving of the opened-up starting spots. 

Cohen echoed his coach’s sentiment. A senior with his last opportunity to win the Patriot League Tournament and qualify for the NCAA Tournament, Cohen said he has been impressed thus far with the team’s level of play.

“Our level of effort has been really good,” Cohen said. “I know in the past sometimes we struggle with that, and this year has really been different. Everyone’s sprinting on the court, everyone wants the ball, doing the little intangible stuff that the team needs.”

Although the Mountain Hawks are aware that the pre-season polls may not favor Lehigh as highly as past seasons, Cohen said the team is not worried. He added that there is a general confidence that Lehigh will compete for a championship just as it would any other year.

“I’m just expecting myself to step into that leadership role and do whatever our team needs to win,” Cohen said. 

Morra said each day is a learning process for the freshmen, who have been able to rely on the leadership of the older players as they adjust to playing basketball at the collegiate level.

With one more month of pre-season remaining, Morra said he and his transformed roster are already eager to get rolling. 

“I think it’s going to be an exciting team to follow,” Morra said. “They’re going to be a fun team to watch. They’re going to be on the floor, making hustle plays, it’s going to be college basketball at its purest.”

Lehigh opens its 2019-2020 season on Nov. 5, against Monmouth at Stabler Arena. Conference play opens against Navy on Jan. 2.

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