Ari Rosenfeld (@realA_rosenfeld)
In his time as head basketball coach at Lehigh, Brett Reed has become known for challenging his team with tough, away-from-home tilts before the start of Patriot League play.
With his team currently projected to finish at the top of the league, it would be silly to expect any different from Reed this year.
The Mountain Hawks will tip off the season tomorrow night by travelling to central New York for a showdown with Syracuse in front of the Carrier Dome’s notoriously rabid fans.
It's only their first high-profile matchup of the year; in December, they'll play both No. 6/6 Virginia and No. 23/24 Purdue on the road.
“We have consistently over the course of time played against some pretty quality opponents,” Reed said. “It gives our guys a chance to compete against some of the best. It gives them a chance to see how they match up against some great players that they’ve heard about or know about on a national stage. Ultimately, as a competitor, our players really like that opportunity.”
It’s now the sixth consecutive season that Lehigh has opened on the road against a high-major opponent, and while the previous five openers have all resulted in losses, the Mountain Hawks have beaten their fair share of big-time foes in recent years.
Most notable was the C.J. McCollum-led upset of Duke in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, but just last year, Lehigh went into enemy territory and came out with quality wins over Arizona State of the Pac-12 and DePaul from the Big East. Reed is certainly hoping that the matchup with Syracuse ends in the same fashion, but either way, the experience should pay dividends for his team down the line.
“We hope that we go out there and we beat Syracuse. If we were to fall short, I think there’s a lot of lessons that we can learn,” Reed said. “It’s a double-edged sword because you don’t want to lose confidence in what you’re trying to do, but there are some powerful things that you can learn from failure.
“We can hopefully take those lessons learned, apply them in the Patriot League, and put us in a more advantageous situation to win those games when they become so important in January and February."
While the memorable experience is a valuable part of these games for the players, it’s not lost on them that such contests provide intrinsic benefits later in the season. That’s especially the case for a team with aspirations of claiming the Patriot League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“By Coach Reed placing these opponents on us early on, and early on before league play, it only benefits us. We get battle tested in different situations,” junior center Tim Kempton said. “By having these situations done early, we’re able to kind of see everything that possibly can be thrown at us during league play.”
The 2003 national champions and the sixth-winningest program in the history of college basketball, the Orange present a different animal than even Arizona State and DePaul, let alone Lehigh’s competitors within the conference.
Regardless of the outcome of the game, the Mountain Hawks are acutely aware of just how special an opportunity it is to play against a program as prestigious as Syracuse in a venue as historic as the Carrier Dome.
For Kempton, the returning Patriot League Player of the Year and an Arizona native, it’s an opportunity he certainly never expected to have.
“We’re all excited. Coming out here and playing a team like Syracuse with the prestige that they have and with the bells that come with their name, it’s something that we’re looking forward to,” Kempton said. “The atmosphere surrounding the game and the atmosphere surrounding Syracuse, and just playing in the Dome, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I think we’re all going to be able to soak it in.”
Make no mistake, though: soaking it in and being awestruck are two completely different things, and the Mountain Hawks have every intention of not just competing with Syracuse, but making the 200 mile drive back to Bethlehem with a victory in hand.
“We have consistently over the course of time played against some pretty quality opponents,” Reed said. “We’ve had some success against noteworthy opponents as well that have helped to fuel our brand and our confidence of our players.”
“We’re obviously looking more forward to going out there and getting a win against Syracuse on Friday, and hopefully we can come away with that win because that would make the experience only that much better,” Kempton added. “Once the time is there for the tip off, it’s game time, and I think we’ll come out and play a solid game.”
And if the Orange are doubting the legitimacy of Lehigh’s upset bid, they need not do anything more than look within their own conference, the ACC; surely Duke can tell Jim Boeheim and Co. a thing or two about being shocked by the Mountain Hawks.