The college basketball season starts Friday and there is no shortage of storylines in the Big 5.
Villanova is once again the team to beat in the Big East and a legitimate national championship contender.
Saint Joseph's should be a big factor in the Atlantic 10 race if the Hawks can avoid the injury bug, something they failed to do last season and are struggling with already this year.
Temple and La Salle aim to rebound from lackluster seasons, while Penn has the talent to return to the top of the Ivy League standings.
Coaches tend to get the bulk of the attention in college basketball but it's the players who ultimately decide the outcome of a season. Here is a list of 10 players to watch in the Big 5 — not necessarily the best players in the city, but guys who will have the biggest impact in determining their team's level of success this winter.
1. Jalen Brunson (junior guard, Villanova)
The first name on this list just so happens to be the best player in the city. Brunson enters his junior year at Villanova as a first team preseason All-American, preseason Big East Player of the Year, and arguably the best point guard in the country. He's on track to graduate early in the spring so chances are this will be his final season with the Wildcats. The NBA awaits for Brunson, who has lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him when he arrived at Villanova three years ago. He has the rare ability to take over a game single-handedly while also elevating the play of his teammates. Brunson will be counted on for more scoring and an increased leadership role this season — things that come naturally for a player who is poised to put together one of the finest seasons in school history.
2. Charlie Brown (sophomore forward, Saint Joseph's)
As Brown goes, so goes St. Joe's. His sophomore year got off to an unfortunate start — a preseason wrist injury put his status at the beginning of the season in question. But when he's healthy, Brown is a flat out difference-maker — a silky smooth wing who should take a sizable leap during his second season on Hawk Hill. That's saying something considering how good Brown was as a freshman. He is an NBA-level talent who will be a force in the Atlantic 10, a player capable of carrying St. Joe's back to the NCAA Tournament.
3. AJ Brodeur (sophomore forward, Penn)
Brodeur has a chance to be not only one of the best players ever to play at Penn but also one of the best players in Ivy League history as well. If his freshman season was any indication, big things are in store over the next three years. He led the Quakers in scoring and rebounding as a freshman and set a program record with 66 blocked shots. You don't typically see a player as talented as Brodeur in the Ivy League. He could play and succeed in any conference. In fact, he turned down offers from Notre Dame and Boston College coming out of high school. Brodeur is the type of player who should lead Penn to accomplishments that were routine for the Quakers not too long ago — Ivy League championships and trips to the NCAA Tournament.
4. Josh Brown (senior guard, Temple)
Last season was beyond frustrating for Brown, who tore his Achilles tendon in May 2016 and worked his way back to action for a handful of games before being shut down for the remainder of the season. Temple struggled without its floor general — Brown is the type of point guard who keeps the Owls organized on both ends of the floor. He now has a clean bill of health and is aiming to finish out his career on North Broad Street on a winning note. Temple has the talent to compete for an AAC title. It will be up to Brown to lead them in that direction.
5. Donte DiVincenzo (sophomore guard, Villanova)
DiVincenzo is my choice for Big 5 breakout player of the year if there was such an award. His coach, Jay Wright, compared him to Josh Hart last season, which qualifies as high praise. With Hart now in the NBA, DiVincenzo has the opportunity to develop into one of the best players in all of college basketball. He certainly has the talent. He's a tremendous athlete with a well-rounded offensive skill set and the potential to be a lockdown perimeter defender. He was arguably Villanova's best player in the NCAA Tournament last year. Expect that upward trajectory to carry over into his sophomore season.
6. B.J. Johnson (senior guard, La Salle)
Johnson was as good as advertised in his first season at La Salle after transferring from Syracuse, averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds as a junior. He'll look to continue that production in his final collegiate season, but more importantly he'll try to pile up more wins for the Explorers following last season's 15-15 finish that included a 9-9 mark in A-10 play. La Salle has the requisite offensive firepower with Johnson, Pookie Powell and Amar Stukes leading the way. But it's on Johnson to lead them in a way that translates into more victories.
7. Omari Spellman (freshman forward, Villanova)
Spellman makes his much anticipated Villanova debut after being ruled academically ineligible last season. That ruling hurt the Wildcats on the floor last year but could end up being a blessing in disguise in terms of Spellman's long-term development. He used the last 12 months to shed 40 pounds while familiarizing himself with how the Villanova program operates. He should be very comfortable stepping into a critical role for the Wildcats this season. Spellman has the ability to be one of the best post players to ever play for Jay Wright. He is ultra talented on the low block, able to shoot the three-pointer and will serve as the backbone of the Wildcats' interior defense. The combination of Spellman inside and Villanova's arsenal of perimeter weapons spells trouble for opponents this season.
8. Shavar Newkirk (senior guard, Saint Joseph's)
Newkirk went down with a season-ending knee injury last year after just 12 games. He was averaging more than 20 points at the time of the injury and the Hawks were never able to recover from his absence. They were 7-5 at the time of Newkirk's injury then proceeded to go 4-15 without him. Newkirk still isn't 100 percent healthy — rehabbing a torn ACL tends to take more than a calendar year. But he should be back in the Hawks' lineup sooner rather than later, possibly as early as Saturday's season-opener against Toledo. Expect him to slowly regain his confidence and explosiveness and eventually return to form as one of the top lead guards in the Atlantic 10.
9. Ryan Betley (sophomore guard, Penn)
A broken hand forced Betley to miss the first month of his freshman year but by the time last season ended he had established himself as Penn's second-best player behind Brodeur. Betley finished the season by scoring in double figures in eight straight games, averaging just under 18 points during that span. He has a killer instinct that his coach, Steve Donahue, values in his players. Combine that with his skills on the perimeter and Betley should be in contention for First Team All-Ivy honors.
10. Obi Enechionyia (senior forward, Temple)
No player is more critical to Temple's success than Enechionyia, who is extremely talented but hasn't been able to put it all together to this point in his career. He'll get one last shot this year at developing into the consistent offensive force the Owls need him to be. There aren't many players in college basketball with Enechionyia's skill set — he's 6-foot-10 with the ability to play on the perimeter and knock down threes. But after a promising start to his junior season, he slumped during the critical months of January and February. Consistency is the key for Enechionyia for his final season in a Temple uniform.
Mikal Bridges, Pookie Powell, Shizz Alston, Lamarr Kimble, Phil Booth, Antonio Woods, Eric Paschall, Amar Stukes