By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
1 (Formerly: 1). Villanova (11-0, 0-0 Big East)
Previous week: W 82-77 (OT) vs. Syracuse
Upcoming week: Tuesday vs. N.J.I.T.
Throughout most of Saturday afternoon’s game at the Wells Fargo Center, it looked like Villanova’s undefeated season was going to come to an end. The Wildcats didn’t hold a single lead or even tie the game once during regulation after the opening tip. Despite rallying back for much of the second half, the Cats still found themselves down 5 with 15 seconds left; that’s when some vintage Gus Johnson magic took over.
First, Josh Hart (21 points) drained a rare three on what was an ice-cold shooting day for the team as a whole (4-16 from three). Then, Syracuse struggled to inbound the ball against a tenacious Villanova press and turned the ball over. JayVaughn Pinkston (25 points) came away with the loose ball and bullied his way into the paint once more for the game-tying lay-in. Suddenly, a contest that seemed over just seconds ago was heading to overtime, where foul trouble caught up with the Orange and a huge Pinkston block of point guard Kaleb Joseph sealed the victory for Nova.
For a Wildcats team that usually prides itself on team balance, it was unusual to see the bulk of the scoring done by just three players, with Pinkston, Hart, and Darrun Hilliard (23 points) carrying the load. The starting backcourt of Dylan Ennis and Ryan Arcidiacono combined for just 4 points, although Arch did record 9 assists without turning the ball over. The benefit of having team balance isn’t always having 7 players in double figures, but also having plenty of guys who can assume additional responsibility when some teammates are having an off day.
Now, the only thing standing in the way of Villanova’s undefeated record entering Big East play is a date at the Pavilion with N.J.I.T. The Highlanders are certainly not pushovers, having become a household name after defeating Michigan, and also narrowly losing to Marquette. Still, Nova will be a heavy favorite, especially at the Pavilion where they haven’t lost since February of 2013. Look for what’s shaping up to be a magical season on the Main Line to continue.
2 (2). Temple (7-4, 0-0 AAC)
Previous week: W 82-62 @ Delaware
Upcoming week: Monday vs. Kansas, Sunday vs. Delaware State
A pair of transfers were making their Temple debut Thursday night, and though the win came against a winless Blue Hens squad, the early returns on the full-strength Owls roster were very favorable indeed. Expected to add a missing outside shooting element to Owls attack, former UMass swingman Jesse Morgan did not disappoint, hitting 4 of 8 threes as a starter to tie Quenton DeCosey with team-high honors of 16 points. Clemson transfer Devin Coleman also had a nice debut, knocking down 3-6 threes off the bench for his 9 points.
The pair helped the Owls to a season-high 16 made threes, easily eclipsing their previous high of 6. Back-to-back threes by DeCosey and Morgan in the final minute of the first half extended the Owls halftime lead to a 16-point advantage from which they would not look back. Will Cummings was especially grateful for the added help on the perimeter, as he found all those open shooters for a career-high 10 assists against zero turnovers.
The Owls will need that hot shooting to continue when they take on a top-10 Kansas club at the Wells Fargo Center Monday night. Kansas’ lone loss came at the hands of Kentucky, which should hardly be held against them given the amount of NBA talent on the Wildcats roster. The Jayhawks themselves feature two possible lottery picks in the upcoming draft in freshmen Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander. Junior forward Perry Ellis leads Kansas in both scoring and rebounding and the Owls will need Jaylen Bond to rise to the occasion to slow him down.
The only times the Owls have played an opponent of this caliber, they were blown out by both Duke and Villanova. Hopefully, the added shooting boost provided by Morgan and Coleman makes a difference this time around. Temple will then face Delaware State, which will feel like playing a different sport after playing Kansas.
3 (4). Saint Joseph’s (6-4, 0-0 A-10)
Previous week: W 75-58 @ Marist
Upcoming week: No games scheduled
Just as Penn did the week before, St. Joe’s jumped all over an injury-riddled Marist team from the opening tip on the way to an easy victory. On Saturday, the Hawks opened up a 33-9 lead in the first half, with the Red Foxes continuing to struggle offensively without their starting backcourt of Khallid Hart and T.J. Curry. They did welcome back Chavaughn Lewis, who led Marist with 15 points, but it wasn’t nearly to keep up with Hawks forward Isaiah Milesm who dropped a career-high 23 points,
It was the second game with 20 or more points this month for Miles, who had never before reached that threshold. With Miles stepping up of late, the Hawks have also been happy to receive more efficient play from star DeAndre Bembry, who had one of his best all-around games of the season against Marist with 16 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. After shooting 50% or better from the field just once in his first 8 games, Bembry has done so in each of the last two contests, going 13-21 over that stretch. St. Joe’s will have the week off over the holidays, before looking to keep their modest two-game winning streak going next Monday when they face Denver in Colorado.
4 (3). La Salle (5-4, 0-0 A-10)
Previous week: L 68-66 (OT) vs. American, W 67-53 @ Towson
Upcoming week: Tuesday @ Hofstra
There was some magic in the Tom Gola Arena last week, as the Explorers rallied back from a 13-point halftime deficit against American, setting up last-second heroics from Jordan Price.
It wasn’t all half court heaves to send the game to overtime, but Price was the offensive stalwart all game long, finishing with 26 points. Unfortunately, the momentum from the game-tying buzzer beater didn’t carry over to overtime, as the Explorers went over three minutes in overtime without scoring, ultimately losing for the 5th time in 6 games.
La Salle would bounce back in a big way against Towson, however, jumping on the Tigers early on their way to a 17-point halftime lead. Once again, Jordan Price was the man offensively for the Explorers, this time dropping a career-high 31 points. The biggest difference between the last two games was how well La Salle took care of the ball. Following 23 turnovers against American, the Explorers gave the ball up just 9 times against Towson; it also didn’t hurt that the Tigers were 0-14 from three.
The Explorers will travel to Hofstra to play a Pride club undefeated at home on the season. La Salle will have to stay focused on the defensive perimeter, as Hofstra is the 4th-best team from behind the arc in the nation. Ameen Tanksley transferred from Niagara and has emerged as the leading scorer for the Pride, shooting a sparkling 55.8% from three that’s top-10 nationally. Sophomore Brian Bernardi has also lit it up from downtown at 49.3%. The contest should provide a nice road test for a La Salle team that’s actually 3-0 in true road games this season.
5 (5). Pennsylvania (3-5, 0-0 Ivy)
Previous week: No games scheduled
Upcoming week: Monday @ Vanderbilt
With no games over the past week, hopefully the Quakers are well-rested and prepared for what will be their most difficult road contest this entire season. Not only is Penn traveling the longest distance it will this year heading down to Nashville, but they’ll be facing a Vanderbilt squad that sports one of the top offenses in the nation. The Commodores are looking to bounce back from a loss to Georgia Tech Saturday, but are 6-1 at home this season, and already took down a Philadelphia team this season, after beating La Salle by 13 in the Barclays Center Classic.
Darien Nelson-Henry will have his hands full with Vanderbilt sophomore center Damian Jones, who is averaging 16.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, and 1.7 bpg. Jones is projected as a first-round NBA pick, and has the sort of raw ability the Quakers don’t come up against every week. The Commodores also have a dangerous attack from behind the arc, shooting 39.2% from three as a team, led by Riley LaChance (38.9%) and Luke Kornet (48.4%). Vanderbilt is easily the best opponent the Quakers have played to date, and although Penn was playing well prior to winter break, they’ll be hard-pressed to keep this one close. At least make sure to make a trip to Arnold’s Country Kitchen Quakers, you won’t be disappointed.
6 (6). Drexel (2-8, 0-0 CAA)
Previous week: L 80-70 @ Buffalo, L 73-68 vs. Penn State (neutral site)
Upcoming week: Sunday vs. Iona
A bad season continues to grow worse for the Dragons, as after two more losses over the past week, Bruiser Flint’s club has its second 4-game losing streak of the season. First, in Buffalo, Damion Lee scored 24 points, and Rashann London had a career-high 17 points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Bulls. Drexel was hurt by its 15 turnovers, with London and Tavon Allen each giving the ball away 4 times. London’s 17 points marked the second consecutive game the freshman points guard finished in double figures, and his 7-9 night from the floor was one of the few positives on the evening.
Then, things began to get out of hand at the PPL Center in Allentown, as Penn State built as much as a 20-point lead. To their credit, the Dragons showed plenty of fight, frantically causing a string of Nittany Lion turnovers to spur a 15-0 run and cut the deficit to five. Two Tavon Allen threes were a part of that surge, as Allen finished with a team-high 15 points. Unfortunately, Drexel had simply dug itself too big a hole, and Penn State star guard D.J. Newbill (20 points) helped his squad close out the win. For the Dragons, they also received a career-high 14 points from freshman guard Sammy Mojica, providing another glimmer of hope on a year largely devoid of them. Damion Lee also added 13 points, but on just 3-15 shooting. Lee shot 4-22 from three over the past two games, and while it may be unfair, if Lee isn’t in top form on a given night, his Dragons don’t stand much of a chance.
Drexel will play its last game against Iona before entering the Colonial schedule. The Gaels play at one of the 5-fastest paces in the country, and why not speed things up when you’re the 3rd-best 3-point shooting team in the country as Iona is. For a Drexel team that’s struggled mightily to find consistent offense this season, they may find it difficult to keep pace with the Gaels’ offensive storm.