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Patriot League preview

PATRIOT

Predicted order of finish:

1. Lehigh, 2. Bucknell, 3. Holy Cross, 4. American, 5. Lafayette, 6. Navy, 7. Colgate, 8. Army

Surprise team:American. The Eagles have never finished outside the top half of the league since joining in 2001-02. Even with just one starter back, American possesses the talent to at least earn a home game for the first day of the conference tournament.

Hot seat:None. Colgate and Navy have new coaches, Army's Zach Spiker is only in his third season and Lafayette's Fran O'Hanlon has long been one of the Patriot's top sideline tacticians. Don't look for any firings in this league after the season.

Three key games:

* Lehigh at Holy Cross, Jan. 7. The conference opener will be a fine opportunity for the Crusaders, who haven't produced a winning Patriot League record in the two years since Ralph Willard departed, to assert themselves as contenders. Playing at home doesn't hurt.

* Bucknell at Lehigh, Jan. 18. The in-state showdown could provide an early edge in the race for homecourt advantage throughout the league tournament. The return game is Feb. 16 in Lewisburg.

* Navy at Army, Feb. 11. Regardless of the sport, it's a rivalry worth watching. This is the annual Star Game, so additional bragging rights are at stake. The teams also meet Jan. 14 at Alumni Hall in Annapolis.

Three key players:

* G Tony Johnson, Lafayette. The junior led the conference in assists last season as the Leopards reached the league title game. If they're to get there again - or perhaps even earn their first NCAA bid in more than a decade - Johnson will be a pivotal figure.

* G C.J. McCollum, Lehigh. The Patriot player of the year in 2009-10 is the preseason pick for the honor this year. He averaged a conference-best 21.8 points and was also the Patriot leader in free throw percentage (.845) and steals (2.5).

* F Mike Muscala, Bucknell. Last year's Patriot player of the year and conference tournament MVP is back for his junior season. Muscala averaged 14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in 2010-11, and easily led the conference in blocked shots with 67.

- Compiled by Patrick Stevens

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