Lehigh's masterful upset of Duke in the second round of the 2012 NCAA tournament was the biggest moment in the history of the program. The school's first-ever NCAA tournament win came over the sport's most decorated current coach and the winningest team in the event's 64-or-more team era. The victory takes a rightful place next to Bucknell's 2005 stunner over Kansas as the greatest results in the 20-plus years of the Patriot League.
But in terms of this season and what it means for Lehigh and Patriot League basketball, an equally important moment arrived two days after the Duke game. It was then, with a ticket to the Sweet 16 seemingly within their grasp, that the Mountain Hawks let a 15-point lead slip away against Xavier, shooting 5-for-34 from the field in the second half of a 70-58 loss. Among other things, that defeat led star guard C.J. McCollum to return for his senior season after considering an early jump to the NBA.
"I really wanted to come back to school, get my degree, experience the last year of fun with my teammates and make another run," McCollum said last week, "because I feel like we left some games out there last year, including that Xavier game. I think we wish we could get that one back."
That suits Bucknell center Mike Muscala just fine. The Bison, condemned to the NIT last season after a home loss to Lehigh in the Patriot title game, watched their own quality postseason victory at Arizona get quickly washed under by the post-Duke Lehigh love. Plus, the scoreboard now reads McCollum 2, Muscala 1 -- in terms of NCAA bids and league Player of the Year awards through three seasons of one of the nation's juiciest and least-heralded star showdowns. Think Muscala's noticed that he has one last shot to even the score?
"It's kind of a cool rivalry that's developed and [Lehigh's Duke win] definitely is a lot of motivation," Muscala said. "It's [been] motivation for me this offseason and continues to be the way things went last year."
The Patriot League doesn't exactly have a lengthy legacy of producing NBA talent. Former Colgate center Adonal Foyle comprises the entire list, unless you're willing to include former Navy superstar David Robinson, whose 1987 graduation left him several years short of actually competing in the league. Either way, having any pro prospect the likes of McCollum (21.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.6 spg), who could be as high as a lottery pick next June, is extremely rare. Having a second pro prospect of the quality of the 6-foot-11 Muscala (17.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg), at the same time, in the same entering class? Absolutely unheard of, but their presences have elevated not just their two respective programs, but the perception and quality of basketball across the conference.
Both Lehigh head coach Dr. Brett Reed and Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen acknowledge that the spotlight on Patriot League basketball has grown these past couple of years, thanks in large part to the presence of their star players. Reed noted that Lehigh's scheduling difficulty this offseason has been huge, thanks largely to what the Mountain Hawks did to Duke and McCollum's return. Paulsen said it was harder to schedule after the Arizona win than it was after making the NCAAs the previous season. Both men, though, maybe wish their program had a little more of the national stage to themselves.
"It's been an absolute pleasure to watch as our league has grown in talent, particularly these two extremely talented individuals battle. From a purist's standpoint, that's great basketball to watch," Reed said. "From a coach's standpoint, and a bias toward Lehigh, it's also been kind of frustrating, too, because this is a point in our basketball history where we're very fortunate to have a player of C.J.'s talent and a player of his magnitude. But looking right across the court [is] another player who is extremely talented as well, and certainly stands in the way of winning multiple championships."
For having met eight times over three seasons, most notably in two very intense Patriot League tournament games where the pressure of being a one-bid league colors every moment, it's interesting to hear how little the two stars actually know each other. With one a center and the other a guard, there's no direct head-to-head matchup on the court, but there have still been some notable moments, perhaps most famously (at least to Lehigh faithful) when Muscala maybe/sorta/probably fouled McCollum on a late drive to the basket in the 2011 semifinal won 66-64 by Bucknell, which helped propel the Bison to that season's NCAA tournament and capped off Muscala's POY season after McCollum pulled off an extremely rare freshman-of-the-year/player-of-the-year combo in 2010.
As both players are high-efficiency, extremely high-usage fulcrums for their teams' offensive attacks, you'd think at some point they'd have swapped war stories. In today's AAU-fueled world where even LeBron James and Kevin Durant train some together in the offseason, the two league- and classmates must have hung out at a summer camp or on some USA youth team, right? Nope.
"I hear he's a good guy, but I don't know him personally at all," McCollum said.
"If I worked out with him or something, I'm sure we'd get along," Muscala added, "but I'm not the kind of guy who will reach out or anything like that."
The whole dynamic sets the table for what should be an equally dynamic final chapter for the duo. Lehigh and Bucknell almost certainly will be picked 1-2 in the league's preseason poll, and if form holds, the two will be on different sides of the league's postseason tournament bracket, meaning a possible 11th and final encounter could happen in a title-game rematch. Muscala and Bucknell hold a 5-3 lead in the head-to-head series so far, but it's the two most recent encounters -- both played within three weeks last season at Bucknell's Sojka Pavilion, both won by Lehigh -- that are sticking in the Bison's craw. Paulsen said that "there's not a day goes by" where he's not thinking about the Mountain Hawks and how to defend McCollum.
What happened after that last Lehigh win also resonates. Asked last week if he and his teammates were rooting for Lehigh in the game against Duke, Muscala went mostly diplomatic. He copped that sentiment was split, with a couple of Bison happy for the Mountain Hawks while several others weren't pleased at all to see their chief rival cash in an opportunity that Bucknell thought would be theirs. On one hand, Muscala sees what the upset did for the rep of the conference, and even the increased attention Bucknell could ultimately glean from it. On the other, he's now hungrier than ever to make sure it doesn't happen again in his senior season. He has a score to settle, after all.
"It was a great win, it was good for our league, but it's just hard for me personally because we put a lot of work in and we came so close," Muscala said. "Obviously, they played a really, really good game. They deserved to win, but it's tough. You always want to be there."