Still amateurs, but definitely not last

PatriotThe league name is the same, but the game certainly is not.

Not what you remember from five years ago, when John Feinstein introduced the Patriot League to the nation in "The Last Amateurs."

In his inside look at the league, Feinstein painted the Patriot as a proxy of the Ivy League – a fledgling non-scholarship conference whose student-athletes were the purest in the Division I game.

What Feinstein couldn't have realized was that he was watching a league on the cusp of a radical transformation.

Sure, the same academic standards still apply and Patriot League players remain among the smartest around. But gone (except in one case) is the ban on athletic scholarships, and that move has ushered in an influx of talent that has made the conference much more formidable.

So, while much of the nation was shocked when Bucknell beat (and outplayed) Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, those close to the league were not.

"I think the league has gotten stronger every year," Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard said. "I think even going back four years ago, we showed that. We had a great opportunity to beat Kentucky and then Kansas and then Marquette [in consecutive NCAA appearances]. There was never a doubt that Bucknell could beat Kansas – they have a very good basketball team. I thought if we got in, we would have had a very good chance. I was disappointed [Bucknell] didn't beat Wisconsin. But no, I wasn't surprised at all at their success."

Willard should know. His Crusaders finished three games ahead of the Bison during the Patriot regular season, only to lose the conference championship game at home by four. Holy Cross recovered from that disappointment to win an NIT game at Notre Dame.

Still, despite those postseason wins, and Bucknell's wins at Pittsburgh and St. Joe's during the nonconference season, the league still struggles nationally to shake off its "all books, no ball" image. Although the top teams are far better than what the league's "low major" status would imply, they still carry the stigma of an underrated conference affiliation – something that hasn't escaped Willard.

"Nobody will play us, and I don't think that problem is going to go away," Willard said. "No one is going to play a Holy Cross. As the conferences get bigger, they have less need to play nonleague games. Sure, they'll play one or two tough games, but they'll be TV games, not us."

The solution for schools like Bucknell and Holy Cross is twofold – have the league better itself as a whole while individually rising above the perception of the league, much as Penn and Princeton have done in the Ivy League.

"I think the league has to get better from top to bottom, but individually, we have to do that," Willard said. "Everyone knows we're good, but we're still a Patriot team. I have had people tell me not that 'We can't lose to Holy Cross,' but that 'We can't lose to a Patriot League team.' The league, top to bottom, needs to continue to get better if that's going to change."

Part of the league's overall improvement will be dependent on the schools at the bottom figuring out long-term plans. Unlike the other five schools in the league, Lafayette, Army and Navy do not give athletic scholarships. Although the two service academies make up for that by paying for their students' educations in return for service after graduation, Lafayette is left facing a crucial institutional decision.

The Leopards were a Patriot League power in the late '90s, notching three straight regular-season titles, plus NCAA appearances in 1999 and 2000, but since the league gave in to pressure from Holy Cross in 1998 to begin re-implementing scholarships and brought in former CAA member American University a few years back, Lafayette has sunk to a mostly middling level.

So far, Lafayette has fervently stuck to its belief that the league's non-scholarship move in the early 1990s was the right one, but now its options seem limited. The school rejected a plan to move the sports program down to Division III, and the only other non-scholarship conference in the land, the Ivy League, isn't expanding anytime soon (read: ever).

So what's a prideful program to do?

Lafayette head coach Fran O'Hanlon is very careful in answering that question, understanding the conflict between the competitive reality and his school's established beliefs.

"What defines a league? Schools that have the same mission statements," O'Hanlon said. "Obviously, our league is committed to student-athletes. I guess the next question is how do you fund those student-athletes … and we're trying to find our own identity.

"The Patriot League is an excellent league and has an excellent mission. I don't know a better league for us to join, so I guess that's what we have to do [at some point] – join the Patriot League [in giving some sort of scholarship aid to athletes]."

Although outsiders might think it's unreasonable for a non-scholarship program to be asked to prosper in a league where every other team is or soon will be fully stocked with scholarship players, O'Hanlon remains very satisfied with his lot.

"I'm committed," he said. "I believe in the model that we have – student first, athlete second. I've had opportunities to go other places, but [I love] the type of student-athlete I get to coach and their commitment to be the best they can be, in the class and on the court.

"We're not going to be the ACC or the Big East, but we're a very good league that not too many people want to play. We have some very good coaches … and it's a very good product."

A very good product more and more people are acknowledging after this past March.

Summer indicators
Good sign: Although Willard hates the move (because Worcester's pretty darn far from Annapolis, Md. and Easton, Pa.), the league's switch to a Wednesday/Saturday schedule (from Friday/Sunday) should significantly improve the quality of play on the weekend while limiting most teams' missed class time to a handful of days during the season. Teams might have to adjust to lesser officiating, as many first-choice refs will be officiating mid- and high-major conference games, but the increase in preparation and rest time is probably worth that sacrifice.

Red flag: If the scholarship disadvantage weren't enough to hinder Lafayette, the Leopards received a sizable blow in June when the league's leading rebounder, Jamaal Douglas, announced he was transferring to Eastern Kentucky. Douglas averaged seven boards per game and notched five double-doubles last season.

Safe bet: Bucknell is in the running for brightest team in the nation – and we're not talking about book smarts. Kudos to the Bison for their "don't shoot me" orange road uniforms. Intense.

Beat Kansas and return practically everyone? Sounds like an automatic bid winner.

In his early (early, early) look at the 2006 NCAA Tournament field, our resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, has Bucknell making a repeat trip to the Dance.

2006 Bracketology


* – NCAA Tournament
# – NIT

In an odd twist, the league's top nine scorers all return this season, with two Mountain Hawks in the top five.

Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor for ESPN.com. E-mail him here.