Patriot League ShootAround: Is American the favorite now?

Updated: August 7, 2008

AP Photo/David Kidwell

After 14 years and two huge NCAA tourney wins, Pat Flannery stepped down at Bucknell.

Flannery steps down

The phrase "coaches' league" often is a euphemism for "low-talent, small-time conference," but when attached to the Patriot League, it's an accurate and flattering assessment.

American head coach Jeff Jones made five NCAA tournaments, including an Elite Eight, in his eight ACC seasons at Virginia. Holy Cross' Ralph Willard was highly successful at Western Kentucky before a five-season Big East run at Pitt. Army's Jim Crews led Evansville to six postseason berths, including four NCAA trips. Fran O'Hanlon has had a strong 13-year run at Lafayette that included three straight regular-season league titles and two NCAA bids in the late '90s.

And yet the coach in the Patriot League with the most national recognition won't be on the sidelines next season. He'll be raising money for his alma mater, Bucknell, instead. And Pat Flannery is OK with that.

"I'm really excited. I needed the fresh air. I needed something to happen along [these] lines," said Flannery, who retired in April as Bucknell's head coach after 14 years in charge. "For 28 years, I haven't changed anything. I'm still not a great delegator. I still take every loss like it's the end of the world. … I never got to that point where I fully understood how to handle everything."

Despite consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament in 2005 and 2006, Bucknell hasn't been the Patriot's best team, not with Holy Cross making it to six Patriot League championship games and four NCAA trips in a seven-season span from 2001 to '07. The Bison aren't even second in title-game appearances this decade after American finally won in its fourth attempt last year.

The nation knows Bucknell better because of one simple reason -- the Bison broke through, big time, on the national stage. Bucknell's back-to-back first-round NCAA tournament wins in 2005 (the 14-over-3 shocker against Kansas) and '06 (a 9-over-8 versus Arkansas) are the Patriot League's only NCAA victories.

All the plaudits, though, couldn't reduce the stress the coaching lifestyle was putting on Flannery. Every coach has to deal with the occasional unhappy player or parent, but Flannery's concerns went well beyond that. Well-documented health issues forced him to miss the odd game or two in past seasons, and the strain was exacerbated last summer when Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, the father of Bucknell assistant coach Mark Prosser, died in his office after suffering a heart attack. Suddenly, at age 50, Flannery was forced to take a longer look at his own situation.

"I can't say [Prosser's death] doesn't hit you and you say 'Wow, this game and what I'm doing, I have to change the way I am,'" he said. "And I was unable to do that."

The end result, fostered by an after-the-season meeting with the school's president, is that Flannery moved to a development position, with a fundraising role that will start in earnest after he returns from the Olympics. There he will be the guest of former Bucknell player J.R. Holden, who is the starting point guard for Russia, where Holden plays professionally.

What the future holds for Flannery is unclear, but he's enjoying the present. With the free time he's unaccustomed to having, he's taken a family trip to the New Jersey shore and even managed to skydive to honor his father, a former paratrooper.

"I always wanted to do it. I wasn't getting any thinner, and I wasn't getting any younger," Flannery said. "I can promise you this: One and done. One. And. Done. I will never do that again."

Flannery can't promise that he'll never coach again, noting that he hasn't been through a season yet to see how he feels away from the game. But right now, the plan is to stay away. He expects to be a frequent fixture at Bucknell's Sojka Pavilion and has spoken with new head coach Dave Paulsen a few times, but that's as close as he'll get to being involved with the Bison this year. While he may prove to be a huge asset in the fundraising game, Flannery's exit leaves a hardwood void in the league he's called home for over two decades as a player and coach.

"Pat was great for the Patriot League. He cared about the league," Navy head coach Billy Lange said. "At every league meeting, even when those guys were on top of the world, every vote he made, every direction he took, was always for the good of the Patriot League."

Now he's finally doing something for the good of Pat Flannery. That's great for him, but a loss for a true coaches' league.

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Who's the favorite?
It should be American, which returns almost every pivotal piece from last season's club that won the Patriot regular-season and tournament championships. Point guard Derrick Mercer (12.4 ppg, 4.0 apg) and shooting guard Garrison Carr (18.4 ppg) make up the league's best guard tandem. Throw in five other regular rotation guys from the squad that tormented SEC champ Tennessee for 35 minutes in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and you have the makings of a back-to-back champion. That wouldn't be shocking at all in the Patriot League. Since the league's formation in 1991, six teams (including Fordham, which now plays in the Atlantic 10) have won back-to-back tournament titles. Holy Cross actually took down three straight from 2001 to '03.

No More "Sprink or Swim" at Navy
After its second-place finish last season, Navy should threaten again despite the loss of guard Greg Sprink, the league player of the year. Now, no coach is going to tell you that losing a guy who averaged 21.8 points is a good thing. But given that Sprink shot just 36.1 percent from the floor last season while taking 17 shots a game and committing 103 turnovers, there's a chance the redistribution of his minutes can create more consistent offense for the Midshipmen. The key will be whether guys like point guard Kaleo Kina can convert more of their own looks while creating more chances for their mates. Kina shot just 38.5 percent from the floor himself last season. If he needs somewhere to look, Chris Harris would be a good place to start. He connected on 41.7 percent of his 3s last season while firing up more than seven a game.

Who's the dark horse?
Given Colgate's near miss last season in the Patriot title game, it's tempting to look the Raiders' way again. But a couple of key graduation losses in Hamilton, N.Y., make Lehigh look like a sexier pick. Marquis Hall is a terrific lead guard, and he has Zahir Carrington inside to provide offensive balance. Also, head coach Brett Reed now will have had a full offseason to get his program ready after stepping into Billy Taylor's shoes last August when Taylor took over at Ball State. If the Mountain Hawks (7-7 Patriot last season) can find a way to overcome the loss of leading rebounder Bryan White, the race is open enough that they could make a run.

What of the usual suspects?
Lately, when you think of the Patriot League, you think of Holy Cross and Bucknell, which met in three straight league title games from 2005 to '07. Last season? They finished as the bottom two teams in the league as injuries and graduation took their toll. Will that benefit the Crusaders and Bison this season? Bucknell relied on a lot of young talent last season and should reap the benefits, although losing center Todd O'Brien to Saint Joseph's is a big blow. Holy Cross will also have to replace an important piece on the interior as workhorse Tim Clifford finally exhausted his eligibility. The two teams likely won't bring up the bottom of the conference again, but expecting either club to take the league this season might be asking too much as they continue to rebuild.

No more black nights?
There was perhaps no bigger sign of the changing of the guard in the Patriot League last season than when Army, a perennial league bottom-feeder, went to both Holy Cross and Bucknell and came home with W's. Those "What the???" moments helped the Black Knights finish at 6-8, their best finish since 2002, though they followed that season with an 0-14 league record in 2003. Don't expect that to happen this season. Jim Crews has something going at West Point and it starts with defense, where Army allowed a surprisingly low 62.1 points per game last season. Yes, the team lost leading scorer Jarell Brown (18.2 ppg), but star-in-the-making guard Josh Miller (8.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.0 apg) is ready to expand his role.

If I Were Commish …

The Patriot League finals, hosted by the highest-remaining seed, have been well-attended and good TV for ESPN. But the advantage for the home team is clear. The commissioner should pursue a potential neutral-court site for the league to see if that would work. Attendance could be an issue, but the decision has to be made for the most important competitive balance or to make money on the event.

Also, putting together a nonconference schedule as a member of an eight-team league is a chore. The Patriot League must form scheduling alliances with other conferences to ensure more nonconference home games.



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2008-09 Team Capsules

Patriot League
Despite their relative lack of size, the Eagles were a surprisingly competent defensive rebounding club last season. They also showed it wasn't just because they played in a smaller league when they pounded Tennessee on the boards (37-25) in their NCAA first-round matchup. Given all of the returning talent, they should have another strong campaign. AU shoots the 3 (40.8 percent last season) and free throws (73.9 percent) well and also is excellent defending inside the arc. At the very slow pace they play, though, the Eagles should have lower turnover numbers. Right now, those mistakes are hurting their overall efficiency. With his talent, lead guard Derrick Mercer should do better than the 4.0-2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio he had last season.

The Black Knights took the Academy's "an Army of one" slogan a bit too far last season when Jarell Brown was the only consistently offensive-minded cadet. Despite his exploits, the Knights had the worst offensive production in the Patriot League at 59.0 points per game. That will need to change if Army wants to continue its upward trend. What the Black Knights don't want to change is their defense; they finished second in the league in scoring defense (62.1 points per game) and second in steals (8.63).

It will be interesting to see how new coach Dave Paulsen changes things in Lewisburg. What won't change, according to the former Williams head man, is the intensity and effort Bison fans came to expect from Pat Flannery's squads. What needs to change is the Bison's rampant turnover issues from a season ago. Bucknell coughed it up almost once every four possessions last season while playing a very slow tempo, which is a recipe for offensive disaster. Despite losing gritty guard John Griffin and forward Darren Mastropaolo to graduation and promising center Todd O'Brien to Saint Joseph's via transfer, there is some solid talent returning, including guard Stephen Tyree (the league's defensive player of the year) and shooting guard Justin Castleberry> (10.9 ppg). If freshman Enoch Andoh lives up to billing, he'll be a nice added piece.

The Raiders return a lot of the core that almost took out American for the league tournament crown. They have a nice inside-outside tandem in Kyle Roemer (16.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Alex Woodhouse (6.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.1 bpg), and Mike Venezia (7.1 ppg) can pitch in from the perimeter, as well. Losing Kendall Chones (12.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) to graduation hurts, as Colgate is another Patriot team that can struggle on offense. As with Bucknell, turnovers were a huge problem last season. The Raiders also need to do a better job on their defensive glass.

Holy CrossHoly Cross
The Crusaders, already trying to overcome the loss of their starting backcourt from the season before, spent much of last season hampered by injuries and ended up relying very heavily on Tim Clifford inside. Now his 18 points per game are gone, so where is the offense going to come from this season? That's the big question for head coach Ralph Willard. After Clifford, four of the next five leading scorers last season shot less than 40 percent from the field. Assuming they're healthy, returnees Alex Vander Baan and Pat Doherty are solid pieces. Doherty & Co. will have to protect the ball better, though. Holy Cross played at one of the nation's slowest tempos and still had the worst turnover margin in the league. Without a proven lead scorer, the Crusaders can't waste so many possessions this season.

The Leopards might be in for a tough season, as the league is pretty balanced and talented around them and they need to overcome the losses of Bilal Abudullah (15.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Matt Betley (11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) to graduation and returning guard Deirunas Visockas to injury. Shooting guard Andrew Brown (15.9 ppg, 40.1 percent 3s) should have ample opportunity to look for his shot, as the next highest returning scorer (Mike Gruner) averaged 7.5 ppg last season. The Leopards were fifth in the nation in 3-point shots attempted last season.

The optimist would look at the way the Mountain Hawks defended inside the arc last season (43.6 percent shooting allowed) and believe their defense can be a cornerstone. The pessimist would point out that opposing teams didn't necessarily need to trek inside the arc since they shot a searing 40.0 percent from it last season. Will the extra foot on this year's 3 help the Hawks out? They don't need help offensively with Marquis Hall (14.1 ppg, 4.4 apg) feeding Rob Keefer, a 43.5 percent 3-point shooter, and Zahir Carrington (12.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg). The loss of Bryan White (10.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg), though, leaves a glaring hole on the glass.

When Navy lost forward Trey Stanton to a transfer before last season, it left the Midshipmen with almost no size on the roster. That helps explain why Navy routinely was punished on its defensive glass and why it put teams on the free-throw line at an alarming rate. Head coach Billy Lange is bringing more size into the fold, but Navy will still need to rebound en masse this season to keep teams from second-chance points. If the Midshipmen can board better, their defense, which forces a ton of turnovers (24.7 percent; 15th best in Division I) and holds teams to reasonable shooting percentages, will be solid. It will be interesting to see how Navy rebounds from the disappointment of its final two games from last season. A loss at Colgate cost the Midshipmen a share of the regular-season crown, and Bucknell's half-court shot at the triple-OT buzzer sunk them in the Patriot quarterfinals.

2007-08 Patriot League Standings

Overall record Patriot record
American* 21-12 10-4
Navy 16-14 9-5
Colgate 18-14 7-7
Lehigh 14-15 7-7
Army 14-16 6-8
Lafayette 15-15 6-8
Bucknell 12-19 6-8
Holy Cross 15-14 5-9
*NCAA tournament

For all the Patriot news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Garrison Carr, American, Sr. 18.4
Kyle Roemer, Colgate, Sr. 16.2
Andrew Brown, Lafayette, Sr. 15.9
Chris Harris, Navy, Jr. 14.5
Marquis Hall, Lehigh, Jr. 14.1

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Alex Woodhouse, Colgate, Sr. 6.3
Doug Williams, Army, Sr. 5.3
Stephen Tyree, Bucknell, Jr. 4.8
Kyle Roemer, Colgate, Sr. 4.5
Colin Cunningham, Holy Cross, Sr. 4.4

Final Shots

• Where do the Patriot League teams rank among all Division I teams since the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

• Can American make it two Dances in a row, or will Navy knock off the Eagles? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.