By Greg Stevenson
Boasting arguably the two most talented and productive players in the Patriot League in 2011, the match-up between the Lehigh Mountain Hawks and the Bison men’s basketball team Sunday night for a spot in the league championship game has all the makings for an exciting contest. These two rivals will meet for the third time this season but certainly with more on the line than either of the regular season games.
After beating Army Wednesday night by a 27-point margin to extend their current win streak to eight, the Orange and Blue look as confident as ever heading into the match-up. Led by a balanced front- and back-court as well as a great mix of youth and experience, the Bison have muscled their way through the Patriot League to a 13-1 conference record.
In their first meeting this year back in late January, the Bison and Mountain Hawks squared off at Lehigh in a game the Orange and Blue left victorious, 81-68. Five Bison recorded double-digit points, including leading scorer Bryson Johnson ’13.
The two teams met again just one week ago, with the Orange and Blue once again edging Lehigh, this time by a score of 72-55. Bryan Cohen ’12 was all over the stat sheet with 13 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks, giving the Bison a regular season sweep of the Mountain Hawks.
In both games and throughout the entire season, recently-named Patriot League Player of the Year Mike Muscala ’13 has made his presence felt in the paint on both ends of the court. Averaging over 14 points, seven rebounds, and two blocked shots per game, Muscala poses a difficult match-up for Lehigh forward Gabe Knutson.
All year, the only defense that has slowed Muscala has been the double- and triple-team. However, Muscala has still managed to work through the extra defenders to make shots. Unless Lehigh can effectively double-team Muscala when he receives the ball in the post, Muscala’s athleticism and ability to pass to open shooters when covered will be the difference in a tight contest.
On the other side of the ball will be Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum, who won Player of the Year last season and came in second in this year’s voting. McCollum has averaged over 20 points per game, the highest in the Patriot League, but is more of a one-man show for the Mountain Hawks. In both games against the Bison this year, McCollum has tallied over 20 points but has not gotten much production out of the rest of his team.
With a defensive stopper like Cohen, who defended his 2010 Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year award with another one for 2011, McCollum should find each of his shots Wednesday night contested and difficult. The all-around stellar defensive play by a Bison team who allows the second-fewest points per game in the conference should put pressure on other Lehigh players to step up, something they have not done all season.
As always in the Patriot League and especially in the conference tournament, the match-up Sunday night should be a tough and scrappy battle for the berth in the tournament final. The Bison must come ready to play–otherwise, as the saying goes, any given team can win on any given night.