GAME NOTES: The 19th-ranked Baylor Bears lift the curtain on the 2012-13 season this afternoon as they play host to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.
Lehigh won 27 games last season and finished 11-3 in the Patriot League, just behind first-place Bucknell, but managed to win the conference tournament to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in school history. That feat alone would have been enough for a fantastic season, but the Mountain Hawks took it one step further. As a No. 15 seed, they defeated second-seeded Duke in the second round, 75-70, marking only the sixth time a 15-seed has upset a second-seed in the history of the tournament.
The 2011-12 season was a historic one for Baylor as well, as it set school records for overall wins (30) and victories in the Big 12 Conference (12). The fantastic season earned the Bears a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they advanced to the Elite Eight for the second time in three years before their magical run was cut short by the eventual-champion Kentucky Wildcats, 82-70.
These two programs have never met before. Lehigh is 0-4 all-time against members of the Big 12.
Lehigh was dynamic at both ends of the floor last season, putting up 75.7 ppg and outscoring its opponents by more than 10 points per contest. Prospects of repeating as Patriot League champs are high considering the Mountain Hawks return four of their five starters, the most important being two-time conference Player of the Year C.J. McCollum. The senior is one of the most accomplished guards in the country, and while he's an excellent scorer (21.9 ppg), he brings a balanced skill set to the table that will be attractive to many teams come NBA Draft time (6.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.6 spg, 60 3PM). McCollum is undoubtedly the team's catalyst, but it also welcomes back valuable veteran performers Gabe Knutson (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Holden Greiner (9.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Mackey McKnight (8.8 ppg, 3.5 apg). Lehigh also added a pair of 6-8 freshmen to help with its frontcourt depth in Jesse Chuku and Justin Goldsborough.
Matching up with McCollum in this one is another guard considered to be one of the best in the nation in Baylor's Pierre Jackson. The 5-10 senior, who was named a Preseason All-American by the AP, scored 13.5 ppg and had nearly two steals per game a year ago, and he recorded the second-most assists in a single season in school history (233, 5.8 pg). Rejoining Jackson in the backcourt is junior Brady Heslip (10.3 ppg), a three-point specialist (98 three-pointers made at 45.6 percent), as well as senior A.J. Walton, who plays great defense out on the perimeter. While the Bears' guards are some of the best the Big 12 has to offer, they are going to have to rely on inexperienced forwards now that Quincy Acy (11.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.9 bpg), Perry Jones III (13.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Quincy Miller (11.0 ppg) are all playing in the NBA. The only returning players to the frontcourt are Cory Jefferson and J'mison Morgan, who combined to make just one start a year ago. Among the newcomers looking to step in and help right away is 7-1 center Isaiah Austin, who was one of the top recruits in the state of Texas.
This is sure to be an exciting matchup between two of the nation's premiere guards. Lehigh proved last season that it can go toe-to-toe with any team on any given day, and the possibility for an upset is certainly looming, especially considering the uncertainty of Baylor's frontcourt at the moment. That said, the Bears will find a way to pull out the win at home.