Preseason NIT Preview: Lehigh/Robert Morris

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Lehigh AP All-American C.J. McCollum had 38 points in the Mountain Hawks’ first game of the season. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

The 2012 NIT Season Tip-Off gets underway on Monday night, with the tournament’s top four seeds–Michigan, Virginia, Kansas State and Pittsburgh–hosting the first and second rounds.

Unlike many of these early-season “exempt” tournaments, where the preliminary games are mostly meaningless as the top teams are guaranteed to advance to the championship round, the Preseason NIT is a true bracket, where any of the 16 teams have a chance to play at Madison Square Garden next week.

Three CoBL teams are playing in this year’s Preseason NIT–Delaware (third appearance), Lehigh (first appearance) and Penn (fourth appearance); none of them have made it to the semifinals or further. Lehigh, the tournament’s fifth-overall seed, is out in the Pittsburgh regional where they take on unseeded Robert Morris in the first round for the right to play either Pitt or Fordham the next night. Penn and eighth-seeded Delaware face off on Monday night at Virginia, with the winner advancing to play the Virginia/Fairfield victor.

We already took a peek at Penn/Delaware, now here’s an idea of what to look for when Lehigh and Robert Morris meet out at Pitt’s Peterson Events Center (8:30pm, ESPN3.com).

Both teams suffered big defeats in their first games, Lehigh by 22 points at No. 19 Baylor and Robert Morris by 25 at Rider, a team a very similar roster beat by 26 at home the year before. Lehigh was shorthanded in their loss to Baylor, missing two starters in senior forward Gabe Knutson and junior guard B.J. Bailey, both of whom were out with what Mountain Hawks coach Brett Reed called “minor” injuries.

“Their injuries are minor in the fact that we expect full recovery shortly, however they’re significant because we were without two would-be starters for us at this time of year,” he told CoBL by phone on Sunday night. “We’re still prepared for both to be out tomorrow night…there is a chance that Gabe Knutson could play, although he probably wouldn’t be at anywhere near 100 percent, so we just wanna have a chance to assess where he was with some of his agility work today, how he ultimately responds to that.”

Star guard C.J. McCollum, an AP Preseason All-American, started his senior campaign off strong with 38 points and eight rebounds in the Baylor loss, while point guard Mackey McKnight added 14 as the only other Mountain Hawk in double figures. Also worth noting from that season opener was the first appearances of freshman Devon Carter and Justin Goldsborough, who played two and 12 minutes, respectively.

“We certainly could have used (Goldsborough) more, especially because of the size disparity that we faced in the last game,” Reed said about the 6-foot-8 Fort Washington (Md.) native. “Justin has a tremendous amount of potential and we can recognize that potential; however we need him to take just a few more steps daily from a consistency standpoint and there were some things that he had a chance to now experience and get at least the first college game underneath his belt and there’ll certainly be opportunities for growth.”

The Colonials struggled mightily from the floor in their loss to the Broncs, shooting just 25.5 percent (13-of-51) from the floor and 20.0 percent (4-of-20) from beyond the 3-point arc, turning the ball over 16 times to just seven assists. Rider’s aggressive defense pushed the tempo, forcing Robert Morris out of their comfort zone and leading to the runaway victory.

“(Robert Morris) kind of got sucked into that style of play and it took them out of their natural element,” Reed said. “It was just one of those games where the pace kind of got accelerated so much–and Robert Morris doesn’t mind playing fast by any means–but it just played into one team’s style more than the other.”

Last season, Robert Morris went 26-10 (13-5 NEC), falling in the league championship game to LIU-Brooklyn and advancing to the third round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT) before a loss to Fairfield ended their season. Senior guard Velton Jones, a Philadelphia native and Northeast Catholic grad, already has over 1200 points in his career; another Philly senior, Monsignor Bonner grad Lijah Thompson, won’t play this season after suffering an offseason knee injury. Also worth keeping an eye on is sophomore wing Lucky Jones, who had nine points and five rebounds in the Rider loss.

Reed’s Mountain Hawks are a naturally fast-paced team, with an adjusted tempo of 68.4 possessions per game last season, which was 67th in the country according to basketball stat guru Ken Pomeroy. Andrew Toole’s Colonials, on the other hand, played just under 64 possessions per game, which was 277th in the country, so it would seem what worked for Rider could work well for Lehigh. When asked about the biggest key to the game, Reed instead came up with two important focal points for his squad.

“We have to be able to control and not allow a tremendous about of penetration into our defense, whether that’s Jones, (or) whether it’s their post players, being able to utilize screens and get to the middle and the heart of our defense, that’s number one,” he said. “I think number two is our overall urgency and our willingness to match what appears to me as a very tough and rugged Robert Morris team…we’ll have to really step up and play with that same sort of aggressiveness that’s gonna be critical for us to almost match their mentality. I think those are the two big keys.”

If Lehigh can survive their matchup with Robert Morris, a likely matchup with Big East powerhouse Pittsburgh looms in the second round, with the winner advancing on to Madison Square Garden for the 28th NIT’s semfinal round.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to play in a historic preseason event such as this,” Reed said, “where it’s an open field, there are opportunities to continue to advance, and ultimately we have to do a great job in our particular bracket–which, according to the seedings, may arguably be the strongest bracket out of the whole entire tournament.”

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