Lehigh was picked to finish seventh in the Patriot League this season, but head coach Brett Reed knew that his team could contend if freshman point guard Kahron Ross developed quickly at the collegiate level. And, that is precisely what has happened as Ross just earned Patriot League Rookie of the Week honors for the second straight week and fifth time this season. Ross is the nation’s leader in assists per game among freshman (6.0) and ranks third in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5). Let’s also note that Ross is third on the team in scoring with 9.9 points per game, including shooting 78.9% from the free throw line.
The rapid development of Ross does not come as a surprise as the 5-11 freshman led Jonesboro High School to three consecutive appearances in the Arkansas 6A state finals, winning the state championship his senior year and claiming all-state honors three times. Lehigh also possesses one of the best frontcourts in the league behind returning starter Tim Kempton, who earned the Patriot Rookie of the Year award after finishing in the top ten in scoring and rebounding last season. The 6-10 forward currently leads the Mountain Hawks in both scoring (14.9) and rebounds (8.7) per game.
Overall, Lehigh is averaging 68.4 points per game against teams that would combine to allow 66.4 points per game to a mediocre offensive squad, but the Mountain Hawks’ attack has been on fire over the last five games. Indeed, Lehigh is averaging 79.6 points per game on 51.3% shooting from the field and 47.8% from beyond the arc over its last five contests, and that’s certainly enough firepower to have success against a very good American defense that is 9.6 points per game better than average (56.2 points per game to teams that would combine to average 65.8 points per game). Lehigh has led the Patriot League in scoring in four of the last five seasons, and the Mountain Hawks currently lead the league in rebounding with 36.1 per game.
American arrives in Bethlehem with an anemic offense that is averaging 55.5 points per game against teams that would combine to allow 65.7 points per game to a mediocre offensive squad. Even more concerning is the fact that the Eagles are 7-10 on the road this season where they are averaging just 54.2 points per game. While the Eagles were picked to finish first in the Patriot League this season, the loss of three-year starting center Tony Wroblicky has been devastating to head coach Mike Brennan’s squad. The All-League center was American’s second-leading scorer (12.2), its top rebounder (7.2) and ranked in the top ten in the conference in rebounding, field goal percentage, blocked shots and minutes played.
Coach Brennan was hoping that junior Zach Elcano or Nevada transfer Kevin Panzer could help fill the void left by Wroblicky, but neither player has lived up to their potential. Panzer is averaging 6.0 points per game on 33.0% shooting from the field in 24:13 minutes per game, while Elcano is averaging 2.8 points per game in 17:28 minutes per game. The post is integral to American’s Princeton-style offense, and Brennan’s offense has stalled without a legitimate presence down low. “We throw it to our post every time down the floor,” Brennan said. “They almost become a point guard when the ball is in their hands.”
The other major concern for American is the lack of depth as four players are averaging over thirty minutes per game, including guards Jesse Reed (38:20), John Schoof (37:35) and Darius Gardner (38:50). The Eagles’ fourth guard, Charlie Jones, is averaging 32:13 minutes per game. The lack of depth caused American to struggle down the stretch last season wherein the Eagles lost three of their last five games due to (a) tired legs and (b) opponent’s familiarity with Brennan’s system.
Matters won’t get any easier for the Eagles against a Lehigh stop unit that leads the Patriot League in field goal percentage defense (.400). The Mountain Hawks also rank 34th nationally in defensive rebounds per game, while Kempton is 15th with 6.96 defensive rebounds per game. Fellow forward Justin Goldsborough is second in the league with 1.3 blocks per game. The situation also sets up nicely for the Mountain Hawks as they have won six of their last seven games, including three straight and are hell-bent on avenging three consecutive losses to American.
The most recent defeat to American on January 14 was probably the most difficult to swallow as Eagles’ point guard Pee Wee Garner hit a game-winning three-pointer with less than one second left. The loss was caused, in part, by variance as Lehigh shot just 15.0% from beyond the arc (2-of-13), whereas the Eagles hit 39.0% from three-point territory (9-of-23). Since 2002, Lehigh is 131-46 (.740) in the friendly confines of Stabler Arena, including winning 51 of its last 69 home games. From a technical standpoint, Lehigh is 22-7 ATS in its last 29 games, including 17-5 ATS versus teams with a winning record.
The Mountain Hawks’ also excel against teams like American who possess an excellent defense (allowing less than 64.0 points per game), posting an impressive 11-1 ATS. American has lost four of its last six games, including a 59-43 defeat at Colgate, which is significant in that the Eagles are a money-burning 9-22 ATS off a conference road loss. Finally, Lehigh has demonstrated its talent level with road wins over DePaul (86-74) and Arizona State (84-81). The win over Arizona State was particularly impressive as it snapped the Sun Devils’ 14-game home winning streak, while also being only the second time this season they were outrebounded by an opponent.