By Bob Socci
In years past, this was always someone else’s game to call. For weeks I rode along with the Patriot League’s basketball season, as it unfolded from mid-January through early March. Until it was time to hop off after the semifinals, vacating my courtside seat for another voice from another network.
Back to being a fan, the only way I could see the conference’s championship was to make it appointment viewing. If time allowed, I typically enjoyed those telecasts, especially if what I was watching was accompanied by the sound of a personal favorite like Dave O’Brien or Jon Sciambi.
At the end — sometimes sooner, if the score was one-sided — of every final, happiness for one team was balanced by the disappointment for the other. In a one-bid league like the Patriot, there’s no at-large consolation from the NCAA Tournament selection committee for those who come up short of a championship. Personally invested in such a conference, trying to tell the stories of the programs and players throughout the season-long pursuit of their 15 shining minutes of fame on college basketball’s grandest stage, it’s impossible to avoid such mixed emotions.
Tonight, when Bucknell hosts Lehigh at the Sojka Pavilion, will be no different. One will celebrate a dream attained; the other will lament a dream denied. The difference, though, for me is where I’ll experience and how I’ll express those feelings for both.
Because the CBS Sports Network is televising the Patriot League Championship for the first time, I’m still along for the ride. Vince Curran, a former Penn player and assistant coach, and I get to enjoy the privilege of crossing the finish line with the Bison and Mountain Hawks.
I’ve long relished the rewards of my association with a conference comprised of impeccable students whose interests extend to other areas of life, yet whose passion for the sport runs as deep as any of their Division I counterparts. At any time, in every Patriot League contest, there are engaging personalities, whose histories are worth telling, on the floor.
For instance, the first player off the Bucknell bench figures to be junior guard Bryson Johnson, one of the most dangerous three-point shooters in the conference. Growing up on the northern tip of the Canadian Maritime of Nova Scotia, he was first coached by his mother. A year ago, he was voted to the All-Tournament team, after averaging 14.3 points per game during the Bison’s postseason trek to the Patriot title. Johnson, an economics major, also is an Academic All-District selection; practically earning straight A’s to go with his high-arcing threes.
Perhaps no one’s past is more compelling than Lehigh reserve B.J. Bailey. With his father absent from his life, his mother passed away when Bailey was a high school freshman. Four years later and six games into his career at Boston University, he suffered a concussion. The lingering effects, he says, led him on a path toward depression, mourning the loss of his mom and facing extreme homesickness. Hailing from New Jersey, Bailey transferred to Lehigh in January 2010 and was soon diagnosed with Post-concussion Syndrome.
Six months later, in the early evening of June 24, Bailey and his friend Chris Popper got off work and went body surfing off the coast of Margate City, N.J. Bailey and Popper got caught in a rip current. Struggling to swim back to shore, only to be carried farther away, Bailey’s body was fatigued and cramping.
“After about two minutes I looked up and I was maybe 50 yards from the shore,” he told reporter Tom Hinkel of Easton, Pa.’s The Express-Times. “The rip current was pushing my legs back and my head forward. I started to panic. Chris tried to help me but he couldn’t. I told him to go ahead and try to save himself. I basically gave up.”
Bailey lives to tell about it only because of three others, who risked their own lives by diving into the turbulent water to rescue him and Popper. Traumatized, he decided to concentrate solely on studies. Paying his own way to Lehigh, Bailey gave up basketball.
“It was a wake-up call,” he said of the experience, following practice on the eve of the Hawks’ semifinal rout of American. “I wanted to focus on my priorities.”
Still, there was an emotional attachment to the Lehigh program. Would-be teammates remained friends. Shortly after workouts commenced, Coach Brett Reed realized the need for another body, mainly to give him 15 players with whom to conduct practice drills. Reed summoned Bailey to his office and asked him to reconsider his plans for 2011-12. He did.
“I didn’t want to look back in 10 years and realize that I didn’t give basketball a try,” Bailey says.
He has since gone from non-member to practice player to an integral part of Lehigh’s school-record, 25-win success. In the first two rounds of this year’s tournament, he averaged 9.0 points and 3.5 rebounds in 19.5 minutes. And as, if not more important, the kid who once suffered from PCS is a constant source of “energy plays,” liable to spill across the court to corral a loose ball.
How can you not root for someone like that?
These Patriot League finalists don’t just have great individual stories. They’ve got game too, having split the last two titles. Between them, the Bison and Mountain Hawks own 49 victories. Their best players, Mike Muscala and C.J. McCollum, are clearly the conference’s best as well. In fact, they’re among the most talented in the mid-major game, if not all of college basketball.
Both are juniors included among the nominees for the 2012 Lou Henson National Player of the Year award. Each has been a Patriot Player of the Year. McCollum earned the honor as a rookie in 2010 and again in 2012. Muscala won it last season. And both are pro prospects, attracting looks from NBA evaluators. McCollum is a 6-foot-3 guard ranked in the top five nationally in scoring (21.7) and steals (3.5). Muscala stands a legitimate 6-11 and owns a skillset marked by mobility (183 career blocks), versatility (16.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg and 39 percent from three-point range) and dexterity (he’s lethal with left or right hand).
Best of all, McCollum and Muscala rise to the standards of this series. After the latter combined 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 68-61 triumph January at Lehigh, the former rebutted with a three-point dagger, off a killer cross-over dribble, in the final second of a 56-53 victory last month at Bucknell. McCollum’s game-winner gave the Bison their first league loss in 21 games.
A year ago, Bucknell survived at home in the semifinals, edging the Hawks, 66-64, before defeating Lafayette with relative ease, 72-57. The margin no matter, BU’s students, known as the “Sojka Psychos” went on a lunatic fringe, leading to an orange crush at centre court.
Somewhere around 9 p.m. tonight, either that scene will be repeated or the small cluster of brown-clad fans behind Lehigh’s bench will have license to go crazy.
Most exciting for me, the view will be up close and the experience far more personal.