By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
1 (Formerly: 1). Villanova (12-0, 0-0 Big East)
Previous week: W 92-67 vs. N.J.I.T.
Upcoming week: Wednesday vs. Butler, Saturday @ Seton Hall
After the Wildcats needed a last-minute comeback to pull out the win against Syracuse, it looked for a while like they might need a similar surge to top the visiting Highlanders. The only conference-less D-1 team, N.J.I.T. employed the same strategy it used to take down Michigan, hitting 8-13 threes in the first half to lead by 3 at halftime. Fortunately for the collective cardiac health of Villanova fans, the Cats didn’t waste as much time taking back control, using a 20-3 run midway through the second half to gain a double-digit lead and eventually cruise to an easy victory.
With Darrun Hilliard missing the game with a concussion, a couple of his backcourt mates picked up the scoring slack in his absence. Ryan Arcidiacono tied a season-high with 16 points, scoring 7 of those points during the game-turning 20-3 run. Freshman Phil Booth used the extra minutes to drop a career-high 14 points, and Dylan Ennis rebounded from a poor effort against the Orange to lead all scorers with 17 points. Daniel Ochefu did yeoman-like work on the back line, recording his second double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Now one of just 6 unbeaten teams in the country, things couldn’t be going better for the Wildcats as they enter Big East play. Hilliard was held out mostly as a precautionary measure and is expected to return Wednesday afternoon; they’ll need all hands on deck against two of their toughest conference foes. Butler has a win over North Carolina under its belt this season, and as you may recall, Seton Hall knocked Nova out of last year’s conference tournament; the Pirates are also undefeated at home this season. The Wildcats have passed all tests this year with flying colors, but this is the point of the year when things really heat up.
2 (2). Temple (9-4, 0-0 AAC)
Previous week: W 77-52 vs. Kansas, W 66-56 vs. Delaware State
Upcoming week: Wednesday @ Connecticut, Sunday vs. UCF
We already covered in full Temple’s dominant upset victory over Kansas. After facing the Jayhawks, going up against Delaware State must have seemed like a different sport. Unfortunately, the Owls played down to their level of competition, shooting just 33% from the field and never fully pulling away from the Hornets. Luckily for the Temple faithful, Jaylen Bond continued his assault on the boards, grabbing a career-high 18 rebounds (including 6 offensive), in addition to scoring a season-high 12 points.
In addition to Bond’s efforts, it was a tale of two halves for Jesse Morgan. After going 0-7 from the field in the first half, Morgan caught fire after halftime, hitting 5 threes for his team-high 15 points, including 4 triples in a 4-minute span. They’ll need two great halves from Morgan on Wednesday when the Owls go up against the defending champion Huskies.
Connecticut hasn’t been quite as formidable this season with Shabazz Napier taking his talents to South Beach, but Ryan Boatirght as assumed the mantle of next great UConn guard, averaging over 19 ppg. Big man Amida Brimah, a 7’0″ sophomore from Ghana, is top-30 in the nation in blocks and gives the Huskies a great inside-outside combination. A date with Kevin Ollie’s team is a difficult way to reintroduce the Owls to conference play in the AAC, but after taking down Kansas, we know Temple can hang with anyone.
3 (3). Saint Joseph’s (6-4, 0-0 A-10)
Previous week: No games scheduled
Upcoming week: Monday @ Denver, Saturday vs. George Washington
After their holiday layoff, the Hawks return to the hardwood out in Colorado against an undersized Denver squad. The Pioneers don’t give major minutes to anyone taller than 6’7″, and as result, are one struggle defensively with opposing teams shooting 47.9% from the field. Aside from leading the team in scoring, 6’3″ senior guard Cam Griffin also tops Denver in rebounding at 5.8 boards per game. The Pioneers can score the rock though, as alongside Griffin, junior guard Nate Engesser is second on the team in scoring, and among the better outside shooters in the country at 48.1% from three. Of course, the Hawks struggle themselves with the outside shot, but hopefully their playmakers can attack the rim with ease with no interior presence for Denver defensively.
Back on the East Coast, St. Joe’s will begin A-10 play against the Colonials. GW won the teams’ lone meeting last season and are fresh off an upset of 11th-ranked Wichita State. The Colonials are one of the better rebounding teams in the country, with 5 players averaging over 4 rebounds per game (for comparison’s sake, the Hawks only have two). Hailing from Argentina, junior wing Patricio Garino leads the team at 13.3 ppg, and is also among the top-25 players in the country with 2.5 steals per game. The Hawks are riding a 2-game winning streak, but given the long travel to Denver and GW’s track record this season, these are two contests where St. Joe’s will need to bring their ‘A’ game.
4 (4). La Salle (7-5, 0-0 A-10)
Previous week: W 83-74 @ Hofstra
Upcoming week: Tuesday vs. Pennsylvania, Saturday @ George Mason
The Explorers moved to 4-0 on the road this season with a sparkling shooting performance against Hofstra. After the Explorers led for the majority of the first half, the Pride closed the deficit to just 1 point a few minutes after halftime. However, Jerrell Wright (13 points and 10 rebounds) scored 6 straight points to extend the La Salle lead back to 7; Hofstra would get no closer than 4 the rest of the way.
Jordan Price continued his recent hot streak, dropping a game-high 28 points on 10-17 shooting (5-9 from three), and adding 7 assists. Price is averaging 28.3 ppg over the last three games, and has solidified his role as the go-to guy for the Explorers. Cleon Roberts also had a great game, scoring a career-high 18 points by hitting 4 threes on 6 attempts. Roberts is now up to 40% shooting from behind the arc on the year.
La Salle will look to maintain their success on the road when they open conference play against George Mason over the weekend. First though, they’ll look to earn their first win in the Big 5 this season, following losses to both Villanova and Temple. The Explorers easily defeated the Quakers last season 76-57, dominating the boards with a 45-29 advantage. Jerrell Wright led all scorers with 21 points in that game, and he and Steve Zack will look to control the action on the interior once again. George Mason has struggled to a below .500 record so far this season, so the Explorers could find themselves riding a nice winning streak as the A-10 season gets underway.
5 (5). Pennsylvania (3-6, 0-0 Ivy)
Previous week: L 79-50 @ Vanderbilt
Upcoming week: Tuesday @ La Salle
Penn was playing good ball and riding a 3-game winning streak, but going up against the Commodores was a huge step-up from the Marists and Binghamtons of the world. Vanderbilt’s size proved to be too much for the Quakers, as Penn was out-rebounded 39-24 on the game. James Siakem led the Commodores with both 17 points and 8 rebounds. While the Quakers were getting beat on the interior, they also couldn’t get anything going from the outside either, as they shot just 5-19 from three. Tony Hicks led Penn with 16 points on 6-13 shooting, while Matt Howard added 11.
The Quakers will be playing their second Big 5 game of the year against La Salle, after losing a single-digit affair to Temple in November. Penn hasn’t won such a game since January 2012 against St. Joe’s. Vanderbilt’s size gave the Quakers a ton of trouble, and La Salle poses a similar threat in that area. Darien Nelson-Henry will need to have a huge game, and do much better than the 4 rebounds he pulled down against the Commodores. We’ll see if the Quakers have what it takes to finally hang with the rest of their city foes.
6 (6). Drexel (2-9, 0-0 CAA)
Previous week: L 81-62 vs. Iona
Upcoming week: Saturday vs. Elon
Facing an Iona squad that rates as a top-10 offense nationally, Drexel wasn’t able to keep up with the breakneck scoring pace of the Gaels, never leading and only closing within as few as 7 points in the second half. The Dragons received nice efforts from the Damion Lee and Tavon Allen, who each scored 18 points and combined to shoot 7-17 from three. However, the supporting cast was completely MIA, as the rest of the Dragons combined to shoot just 9-35 from the field, including an 0-8 spot from reserve guard Freddie Wilson. Iona’s leading scorer A.J. English was actually held below his season average of 23 ppg, but shot 7-15 for a game-high 19 points. 3 other Gaels finished in double figures as Iona shot 10-21 from three as a team.
As if the on-court news wasn’t bad enough, the Dragons also learned before the game that reserve big man Sooren Derboghosian would be out indefinitely with a knee injury. Drexel will need to keep surging on, as Colonial play begins this week, and with it, a clean slate of sorts to restart this season. Elon will be playing its first season as a member of the CAA, although Drexel did defeat the Phoenix in out of conference play last season. Elon will be without sophomore guard Luke Eddy, who was leading the team in scoring before tearing his ACL a little over a week ago. Tanner Samson now leads the Phoenix in scoring, and loves to jack up threes, having already attempted over 100 on the season and hitting them at a 40% clip. Still, Saturday’s contest is certainly a winnable one for the Dragons; starting CAA play with a win would go a long way toward erasing the miserable start to this season.