Chris Bengel (@clbengel)
Six months after the biggest win in school history and a first round upset of Duke, the Lehigh Mountain Hawks are more hungry than ever heading into this upcoming season.
The Mountain Hawks return their top three leading scorers in C.J. McCollum, Gabe Knutson and Holden Greiner. That group helped Lehigh to a Patriot League championship this past season, not to mention knocking off the Blue Devils in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 64.
“We have a strong nucleus of returning players that understand what we’re trying to accomplish,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said at the school’s Midnight Madness on Friday night, just hours after the Mountain Hawks held their first full-length practice of the 2012-13 season. “Their intensity and their focus have been terrific thus far. Obviously we’ve got a long ways to go and room for improvement but I like the foundation that we’re laying.”
The Mountain Hawks had their best season in school history last year as they put together a strong 27-8 (11-3) record. They won their final eight games of the regular season and were one of the hottest teams around heading into the NCAA Tournament — as number-two seed Duke found out in that 75-70 loss at the hands of Lehigh.
The Mountain Hawks have accomplished a lot in the last year. But they are not satisfied.
“The vibe for our team is a team that’s hungry,” Reed said. “They want to continue to progress and they want to accomplish great things once again. That’s the stark difference to a team that’s content and satisfied. So because we have that mindset, I think we’re focused at the task at hand. The aura that surrounds our program is one of expectation and one of excitement.”
“We’re just more of a team,” McCollum said. “People know who we are and things like that but we’re definitely taking it day by day. We just want to have a good year this year.”
McCollum, who led Lehigh in nearly every offensive category last season, is now one of the most recognizable names in college basketball. The Canton, Ohio native was a relative unknown to a majority of the country. But after scoring 30 points in the upset win over Duke, McCollum is becoming a household name.
“I’m just taking it all in stride,” he said. “It’s great when people recognize not only myself but Lehigh University. I’m going to continue to work hard and improve on what we did last year. I’m just going to continue to do well for the Patriot League and make the league look good.
He is more than ready for the challenge.
Knutson, a 6-9 forward, comes back as the second-leading scorer (12.2 ppg) and and rebounder (5.6 rpg). The Iowa native was named to the All-Patriot League Second Team as a junior and shot 51.2% from the field which was good for second in the conference. Greiner, a 6-7 forward, was the third-leading scorer (9.4 ppg) and was tied for the team lead in blocks with 19 on the season.
The Mountain Hawks’ toughest competition for the 2013 Patriot League title will come from a fellow Pennsylvania school in Bucknell. The two faced off in the league championship game last year, which ended in an 82-77 Lehigh victory.
Bucknell finished the regular season with 12-2 record in the Patriot League while the Mountain Hawks posted an 11-3 mark.
Senior forward/center Mike Muscala (17.0 ppg) returns for the Bisons along with junior guard Cameron Ayers (11.1 ppg) and senior forward Joe Willman (10.7 ppg). Both Bucknell and Lehigh return their top three leading scorers from last season.
“Bucknell did a great job last year, McCollum said. “They had a tremendous year and so did we. We played well and we’re definitely capable of doing what we did last season.”
Both teams encounter tough tests in their season openers. The Bisons open up on the road at Purdue while the Mountain Hawks travel to Waco, Texas to face off with Baylor.