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10 most important Big 5 players this season

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10 most important Big 5 players this season

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. 

Honorable Mention
Mikal Bridges, Pookie Powell, Shizz Alston, Lamarr Kimble, Phil Booth, Antonio Woods, Eric Paschall, Amar Stukes

Tons at stake as Temple hosts unbeaten UCF; Penn, Villanova wrap up

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Tons at stake as Temple hosts unbeaten UCF; Penn, Villanova wrap up

Temple (5-5, 3-3 AAC) vs. No. 15 UCF (9-0, 6-0 AAC)
Lincoln Financial Field
Saturday, noon, ESPNU

Last time out
Temple beat Cincinnati, 35-24, last Friday.

UCF beat UConn, 49-24, last Saturday.

Scouting report
Both teams have a lot at stake in Saturday’s game. An Owls win would make them bowl eligible and give them a victory against a high-ranked opponent, which would certainly help when it comes time for bowl selection. On the other hand, UCF will look to preserve its perfect season and stay atop the AAC's East Division with a crucial matchup against 8-1 South Florida looming.

Frank Nutile, who will make his fourth consecutive start at quarterback, has sparked Temple’s offense. Since he stepped in, he has completed 61 of 89 passes for 803 yards, six touchdowns and just two interceptions, and led the Owls to two wins. He will need to continue his stellar play for Temple to beat UCF, which boasts the second-best total and scoring defense in the AAC, allowing 371 yards per game and 20.7 points per game.

The Knights also have the best total offense in the conference, putting up 538 yards per game and 48.6 points per game, which is more than six points better than the second-best team. The Owls must keep UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (2,720 yards, 22 touchdowns, five interceptions) and the Knights' rushing attack, which averages 210.2 yards per game, in check if they want a chance at the upset.

Series history
The series is tied at 2-2 and Temple has won the past two matchups, including a 26-25 come-from-behind win last year.

What's next?
Temple travels to play Tulsa next Saturday.

UCF hosts No. 23 South Florida on Friday night.

Penn (5-4, 3-3 Ivy) vs. Cornell (3-6, 3-3 Ivy)
Franklin Field
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.


Last time out
Penn defeated Harvard, 23-6, last Saturday.

Cornell lost to Columbia, 18-8, last Saturday.

Scouting report
Penn has won its last three Ivy League contests and has gained a lot of momentum after losing its first three Ivy League games this season. Cornell shouldn’t pose much of a challenge to the Quakers since the Big Red are second worst in the conference in scoring offense, total offense and pass efficiency. The Quakers’ strength is their rushing attack, as they average 192 yards per game on the ground. Cornell’s rush defense is sixth in the conference, so look for the Quakers to take advantage of this matchup.

Series history
This is the 124th meeting between the teams. The Quakers hold a 72-46-5 advantage and won, 42-20, last season. 

What's next?
This is the final game of the season for both teams.

Villanova (4-6, 2-5 CAA) vs. Delaware (7-3, 5-2 CAA)
Villanova Stadium, Villanova, Pennsylvania 
Saturday, 1 p.m.


Last time out
Villanova lost to Rhode Island, 20-6, last Saturday.

Delaware beat Albany, 22-3, last Saturday.

Scouting report
What stands out about this regular-season finale are the defenses for Delaware and Villanova. Delaware’s scoring defense is second to James Madison as the Blue Hens allow just 15.7 points per game. The Wildcats’ specialty on the defensive side of the football is their run defense. Villanova allows only 72 yards per game on the ground and will look to slow down a Delaware rushing attack that averages 200 yards per game. Also to note, the Blue Hens come in fighting for a berth in the FCS playoffs.

Series history
Villanova leads the series 28-21-1. The Wildcats won, 41-10, last season.

What's next?
This is the regular-season finale for both Villanova and Delaware. For the second time in the last three seasons, the Wildcats won't make the FCS playoffs.

Fastbreak Friday: La Salle looks to upset No. 20 Northwestern

Fastbreak Friday: La Salle looks to upset No. 20 Northwestern

NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and senior producer Sean Kane get you set for all the weekend's local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

Note: Temple played Auburn at 11 a.m. on Friday in a game that started too early to include in this week's edition of Fastbreak Friday.

Lafayette (0-2) at No. 5 Villanova (2-0), Friday, 8 p.m. at PPL Center in Allentown
SK: 
Villanova makes the trip up the Northeast Extension to take on Lafayette in what is technically a home game for the Wildcats in a building located in their opponent's backyard. This will be the second meeting between these teams in a little over 12 months. Villanova beat Lafayette, 88-48, in the 2016-17 season opener last November.

Jay Wright's team is coming off a lopsided 113-77 win over Nicholls State on Tuesday. It was the program's highest point total in a game since 2003. Wright had some complaints concerning the Wildcats' defense following the game, but there wasn't much not to like about their offensive execution. Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson combined for 60 points as Villanova shot 57 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point territory. 

Wright is utilizing a nine-man rotation that includes four freshmen. This is a deep and athletic Villanova team, but there will be some growing pains with so many first-year players taking on critical roles. Two members of that freshman class — starting center Omari Spellman and reserve guard Collin Gillespie — have had little trouble adjusting to the college game. Gillespie has been particularly impressive, averaging eight points and three assists in just over 18 minutes per game. The 2017 Philadelphia Catholic League Player of the Year is a steady ballhandler and passer with a smooth jump shot — he made four of 11 three-point attempts in the first two games of the season. 

Lafayette opened the season with losses at George Mason and NJIT. The 0-2 start comes on the heels of last season's 9-21 finish that saw the Leopards go 5-13 in Patriot League play. Lafayette is always well-coached under former Villanova star Fran O'Hanlon, but they don't have the talent to keep up with Villanova. Look for the Wildcats to roll on Friday night before things heat up next week at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.  

Villanova 85, Lafayette 60

La Salle (3-0) vs. No. 20 Northwestern (2-1), Saturday, 2:30 p.m. in Hall of Fame Classic in Connecticut
AF:
 The Explorers are 3-0 on the young season but it hasn’t been an easy undefeated start. Sure, Saint Peter’s wasn’t much of a test out of the gates, however, La Salle found some difficulty after that. It took two overtimes to finally put away Penn in the first Big 5 game of the year. Then Dr. John Giannini’s team saw a 20-point halftime lead evaporate at home Thursday night, letting South Alabama back into the game and winning by just eight points. 

B.J. Johnson has been as advertised for the Explorers. The senior transfer is everything they wanted and expected him to be: a scorer, a finisher and a leader. But he can’t do it by himself. La Salle needed all of his 30 points — 22 of them in the first half — to beat South Alabama. Guard-scoring hasn’t been an issue for La Salle in the past and that’s true once again. But getting some points in the paint and low block courtesy of a big man is something Giannini is really hoping Tony Washington can provide. 

I’ll tell you who could be a difference maker not only in this weekend’s game against Northwestern, but for the Explorers this season, Saul Phiri. He played 35 quality minutes Thursday night and was rewarded with a double-double, 14 points and 10 rebounds. On a team with plenty of guards, Phiri is still finding his way as a starter, but he could be a key contributor for La Salle to have a successful season. 

Funnily enough, Northwestern and La Salle shared an opponent already in Saint Peter’s. But unlike the Explorers, the Wildcats have already posted a loss this season, falling to Creighton this week. For more on that, check out our Fastbreak Friday video above. My co-author of this column will tell you all about the Big East.

Northwestern is ranked, though probably not for much longer if they play like they have in their first three games. They needed free throws late to hold off Loyola in their opener. 

If La Salle shoots well, there’s a chance they pull off the win in Connecticut. Northwestern’s defense got a workout with a very high-scoring Creighton team, so the game plan to beat the Wildcats has been laid out. But the Explorers will need all of their gunners and their big man to score well into double digits in this one. 

Northwestern 68, La Salle 64

Princeton (0-2) at Saint Joseph's (1-1), Saturday. 7 p.m.
SK:
You can forgive St. Joe's fans for thinking they can't catch a break. After losing their starting backcourt of Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble to season-ending injuries last season, the Hawks lost their best player Charlie Brown to a preseason wrist injury in October. Brown has yet to play this season. 

Then in the season-opener against Toledo, Kimble re-injured the same foot he fractured last season. Friday morning the school announced that Kimble is out for the remainder of the season as a result of the injury (see story). It's a devastating blow for the Hawks — Kimble is a team captain and terrific floor general.

Every team deals with injuries, but the Hawks have been downright ravaged by key players going down over the last 12 months. Phil Martelli's team has little choice but to soldier on. Without Brown and Kimble, St. Joe's pulled out a gritty 86-82 overtime win at UIC to even their season record at 1-1. James Demery was outstanding in the victory, scoring 25 points to go along with five rebounds and three steals. Freshman forward Taylor Funk added 22 points and nine rebounds. Funk has wasted no time making an impact -— averaging 19 points and 7.5 rebounds.  

The hope is Brown will be ready to rejoin the lineup in the near future. Even without Kimble, the Hawks will be a very difficult team to deal with once Brown returns. 

Princeton is a respectable 0-2 with losses to Butler and BYU. The Tigers are the defending Ivy League champs after winning 23 games a year ago. This is a very solid program that has proven they can play with anyone. I'd be surprised if Saturday's game isn't decided in the final minutes. But in the end, I'm banking on the Hawks figuring out a way to win in their home opener at Hagan Arena this season. 

Saint Joseph's 71, Princeton 69

PSU Brandywine (0-1) at Pennsylvania (1-2), Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
AF: 
The Quakers picked up their first win this week, dispatching Navy at the Palestra by 21 points. But it could’ve been a winning week if they would’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to take down La Salle and earn a Big 5 win in the process. 

Watching that game against La Salle, which I did on NBC Sports Philadelphia (shameless plug), you saw a spark in the Quakers that wasn’t present in the loss to Fairfield to start the season. Ryan Betley is definitely going to be the engine that makes this Penn squad go. But nice performances from Max Rothschild and Antonio Woods showed that there is some depth on this team.. 

But it was a cold night shooting, something that has plagued the Quakers in the past. Against the Explorers, Steve Donahue’s team was a woeful 34 percent from the field and just 25 percent from beyond the arc. Despite all of that, they were still in this game, forcing double overtime thanks to forcing La Salle into 17 turnovers. 

Defense and turning those miscues into points are going to be keys for Penn to beat teams this year and get back to the Ivy League Tournament. And if we learned anything from last year, this is a late-blooming team. So maybe if they figure out their scoring troubles early, they can set themselves up nicely for March. 

And this weekend’s opponent should help the Quakers find their shooting stroke. They welcome Penn State-Brandywine to the Palestra. It actually wraps up a brief home stand for Penn. The next eight games for the Quakers are on the road, not returning home until December 27th. But they will at least head out on the road on a winning note. 

Penn 77, PSU-Brandywine 63

Drexel (1-1) vs. Houston (1-0), Friday, 2:30 p.m. at Paradise Jam in Virginia
AF:
 Unfortunately, this game is not being held in its intended location. The Virgin Islands were ravaged by hurricanes this summer, so the Paradise Jam is taking place in Lynchburg, Virginia on the campus of Liberty University. As they say, the game must go on. On a humanitarian note, all tournament gate money will be donated to the U.S. Virgin Islands to help the recovery. So if you’re cruising around Appalachian, stop by and see some good basketball while helping a great cause. 

Drexel posted its first win earlier this week, beating Arcadia at the DAC. It was great to see the Dragons find their scoring groove, posting 95 points in the win. Also good to see, Tremaine Isabell. The transfer from Missouri tallied 15 of his 22 points in the second half and that’s something Zach Spiker has to like. And it should bode well for the Dragons as they get into the heart of their season. 

And speaking of scoring, Houston is no stranger to putting up points. In the Cougars' lone win of the season, they shot a blistering 69 percent in the first half and eventually put away McNeese State by nearly 30 points. Kelvin Sampson returns his top scorer a year ago in Rob Gray, who also led the American Athletic Conference with 20.6 points a game. To paraphrase Luke Walton who spoke about Joel Embiid, he’s gonna be a problem.  

Houston 85, Drexel 70

Prediction Records
Sean Kane: 2-1
Amy Fadool: 0-2