By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)1 (Formerly: 1). Villanova (3-0, 0-0 Big East)
Previous week: W 81-44 vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore, W 72-65 vs. Bucknell
Upcoming week: Monday vs. VCU (neutral site), Tuesday vs. Michigan/Oregon (neutral), Sunday vs. Delaware
Three games in, Villanova remains undefeated, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying on the offensive end. The Wildcats easily handled an overmatched Maryland-Eastern Shore squad, but like against Lehigh, they struggled to put away Bucknell thanks to some serious shooting woes. The book on Jay Wright’s roster is to hang back and let the Wildcats perimeter players unsuccessfully fire away from long range. That strategy has worked in the first few games as Villanova has shot a paltry 26.3% from downtown on the season, including a 5-22 mark against the Bison. In that contest against Bucknell, the game was actually tied in the final minute before two Darrun Hilliard steals helped seal the victory and prevent what would have been a bad loss on the resume.
Still, a win is a win and all that really matters come March is the Wildcats’ 3-0 record. Things could be worse if not for the play of new starter Dylan Ennis, who leads the Wildcats at 15.0 points per game, and is the lone bright spot from behind the arc, shooting 43.8%. Big man Daniel Ochefu has also picked up his game, nearly averaging a double-double at 10.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest. They’ll need their teammates to revert to more normal shooting production, as the schedule picks up this coming week. Villanova will play a pair of games at the Barclays Center as part of the Legends Classic tournament, before finishing the week against a Delaware team struggling from the loss of many key players on last year’s NCAA tournament team.
The game against VCU looms particularly large as a barometer for the selection committee to look back on and measure the Wildcats against an out-of-conference foe who will also be in the tournament field. The Rams will have no trouble dealing with the defensive pressure Villanova has relied upon to squeeze out a couple victories. The Wildcats will need their offensive firepower to make the trip to Brooklyn as well if they want to keep a zero in the loss column.
2 (2). La Salle (3-0, 0-0 A-10)
Previous week: W 60-58 @ Quinnipiac, W 59-50 vs. Saint Peter’s
Upcoming week: Tuesday vs. St. Francis NY, Friday vs. Virginia (neutral), Sunday vs. Rutgers/Vanderbilt (neutral)
Like Villanova, the Explorers have experienced their share of offensive struggles to begin the season, with the 60-point performance against Quinnipiac marking their high output for the season. However, also similar to the Wildcats, La Salle has stood strong behind a sturdy defensive backbone to remain undefeated heading into a week featuring their toughest matchups of the season to date. As expected, the Explorers have leaned heavily on transfer Jordan Price (15.7 ppg) to carry the offense. Unfortunately, he’s been a wobbly leg to lean on, shooting just 28.3% from the field, including 3-19 from three. Nevertheless, Price stepped up when the team needed him most, drawing the foul and sinking both free throws for the win on La Salle’s final possession at Quinnipiac.
The veteran frontcourt of Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack has helped solidify that defense, averaging a combined 18 rebounds and close to 3 blocks per game. Once they pick things up on the offensive end (especially Wright), things should open up more for the guys on the perimeter. That being said, beating Quinnipiac is one thing, but facing a top-ten team like Virginia is another feat entirely. The games this weekend for the Explorers represent their toughest out-of-conference outings for the season (Big 5 competition excluded). The Explorers will have to discover their shooting prowess in a hurry if they want to earn one or two key victories that could serve as ammunition later for the selection committee.
3 (4). Saint Joseph’s (2-2, 0-0 A-10)
Previous week: W 52-49 @ Drexel, L 94-42 @ Gonzaga, W 68-60 vs. Vermont
Upcoming week: Tuesday vs. LIU Brooklyn, Thursday vs. Western Kentucky (neutral)
The past week was truly a roller coaster ride for the Hawks, as they sandwiched a great road win over city rival Drexel and a solid victory against Vermont around the worst loss by the program in over 20 years. The Gonzaga loss really highlighted the shooting struggles for St. Joe’s (are you sensing a theme among Philly schools?), as the Hawks only made three field goals in the first half to fall behind 48-10 going into the break. That half was the low point for Phil Martelli’s group, but they’ve really struggled throughout the first 4 games, going 34.9% from the field and 21.9% from downtown.
There’s been a difficult transition with DeAndre Bembry taking the reins as the go-to guy on offense, as the sophomore wing is shooting just 32% from the floor and turning the ball over more than 3 times per night. Still, he’s doing a little of other things to help the team, tied with Isaiah Miles for the rebounding lead at 6.8 per game, and leading the team in steals and assists. Bembry did break out for 22 points against Vermont, hopefully snapping him our of the early season funk. A guy who’s really stepped up to help fill the void from all the departed seniors is West Virginia transfer Aaron Brown. The redshirt junior has scored efficiently off the bench, and at 11.8 ppg, is right behind Bembry for the team lead despite playing much less minutes.
The slate of games for St. Joe’s over the holiday week are not as taxing on paper as some of the other city teams. The Hawks really have a chance to get things rolling and start feeling good about themselves heading into a couple contests against city rivals. If St. Joe’s can put some things together on offense like they did against the Catamounts, while maintaining their early defensive intensity, they could be a team to watch in Big 5 play.
4 (3). Temple (2-2, 0-0 AAC)
Previous week: W 82-75 vs. Louisiana Tech, L 74-54 vs. Duke (neutral), L 57-50 vs. UNLV (neutral)
Upcoming week: Tuesday vs. Pennsylvania, Sunday vs. LIU Brooklyn
After a low-scoring slugfest resulted in a win against American, the Temple offense reawakened with both Quenton DeCosey and Will Cummings scoring 20 points. Although Duke easily dispatched the Owls, that loss was basically expected, and the defeat to UNLV a night later was the real letdown. With under a minute left, Cummings rushed a breakaway lay-up that would have reduced the lead to just one. UNLV’s Patrick McCaw out-hustled Daniel Dingle to the long loose ball, and scored on the other end to just about put the game away. The Owls shot just 24.1% on the night, really letting an opportunity for a quality non-conference win slip away.
On a more positive note, transfer Jaylen Bond made his Temple debut against Duke, though he ended up fouling out in trying to help deal with Jahlil Okafor and the other Blue Devils big men. Saturday night, he was part of the crunch-time line-up against UNLV, and is clearly a guy in whom Coach Dunphy has confidence. Temple would seemingly have to improve on their 21.9% shooting from three on the season, and their defense looks markedly improved from the sieve it was a season ago. With the way they’re playing, dropping either of the two games in the upcoming week would be seen as a huge disappointment for the Owls.
5 (5). Drexel (1-4, 0-0 CAA)
Previous week: L 52-49 vs. Saint Joseph’s, L 66-46 vs. Miami (neutral), L 72-70 vs. USC (neutral), W 61-59 vs. Cornell (neutral)
Upcoming week: Sunday vs. Southern Miss
The Dragons organization should thank their lucky stars for advances in modern medicine, because without Damion Lee’s return from last season’s ACL injury, they’d be in even more dire straits than they already are. Lee scored a game-high 28 points, and was pivotal in a late Drexel 7-0 run to pull off the comeback victory against Cornell. That win salvaged what would have been a disastrous tournament down in Charleston, and allowed the team to have a positive note to think back on with a full week before the next game.
Lee has been on fire from distance through 5 games, shooting 46.7% from three on his way to 19.0 points per night. Unfortunately, only two other Dragons have even hit a three this season and Tavon Allen and Freddie Wilson are only 24.1% and 26.7% respectively from behind the arc. The new starting big man combination of Rodney Williams and Mohamed Bah have not seized the opportunity, each shooting below 40% from the floor. Lee is doing his share of the work, but needs a lot more help from his teammates going forward. Hopefully, with the comeback against Cornell and a winnable home game against Southern Miss upcoming, Drexel can start putting something together before the season gets too out of hand.
6 (6). Pennsylvania (0-3, 0-0 Ivy)
Previous week: L 73-57 vs. Rider, L 83-77 vs. Lafayette
Upcoming week: Tuesday @ Temple, Saturday @ Wagner
The easiest part of Penn’s schedule is over, and the fact that they remain winless does not bode well for their season outlook or Coach Jerome Allen’s future with the program. After dropping all their first three games at home, the Quakers will now hit the road for 8 of their next 9 games, starting with their first Big 5 contest of the season against Temple. If they’re going to pull the upset against the Owls, or earn a victory against Wagner, the Quakers will need someone to step up alongside Tony Hicks.
Hicks has done everything offensively for Penn, dropping 18.7 points per game, and even tying a school-record with 13 assists in the loss to Lafayette. Freshmen Antonio Woods and Mike Auger have both emerged as decent secondary options, but the Quakers would probably like to get more from 6’11” junior Darien Nelson-Henry. The big man’s 13 points against Lafayette were his most on the season, and he’s only recorded 2 blocks through 3 games. For a Penn squad without any elite talent, they need all hands on deck more than your typical team to pull out a ‘W’ on any given night. A couple weeks into the season, Hicks appears to be the only one to even board the ship.