NCAA

After returning home, B.J. Johnson creating his own legacy at La Salle

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La Salle Athletics

After returning home, B.J. Johnson creating his own legacy at La Salle

There’s a tattered photograph B.J. Johnson likes, taken on Christmas, about 20 years ago.

He’s 2 in the photo, standing near a Fisher Price hoop and holding a little basketball, reveling in the fact that he just made his first basket. And, not surprisingly, he’s standing next to his proud father Bob, a former La Salle basketball player.

“He was the first person to put a basketball in my hand,” B.J. says. “And throughout my whole basketball career, he’s always been that guy in my head telling me what I need to do better or what I’m doing well.”

You might think it was inevitable that B.J. would follow in his father’s footsteps and join the same La Salle program his dad once helped take to three straight NCAA Tournaments from 1988-90, alongside the great Lionel Simmons.

But B.J. never thought of it that way, instead taking a circuitous route to Gola Arena — which, in a way, makes his first 10 games playing for his dad’s alma mater even more special.

After transferring from Syracuse, and sitting out last season, Johnson has burst onto the scene in 2016-17, averaging 20.2 points per game for La Salle — the second highest scoring average in the city and among the top 50 in the country.

The highlight came when he poured in 35 points against Florida Gulf Coast last weekend, but his coaches believe there’s plenty more to come after the holiday break when conference play opens at Dayton on Dec. 30.

“I think he can be a national star,” La Salle assistant Horace “Pappy” Owens said. “I just think he can do some things which you can’t teach. And I think he has the right temperament. If B.J.’s defense continues to improve, there’s no telling how good he can be.”

A former star player in Philly himself, Owens has been friends with Bob Johnson since they were teenagers and has known B.J. since around the time that old Christmas photo was taken. And he was always impressed by how good the lanky kid was at basketball — and by how much he liked the game.

“The amazing thing about B.J. is I thought he was almost like a giraffe when he was younger,” Owens says with a laugh. “And he got better and better as I saw him.”

The peak for Owens came when he watched B.J. excel at Lower Merion High School and lead the Aces to an improbable win over rival Chester in the 2013 state championship game. B.J. had 22 points and 11 rebounds in that win, wowing everyone watching at Hershey’s Giant Center and capping a terrific high school career in epic fashion. 

“When I saw that and some of the things he can do,” Owens said, “I was like, ‘Wow, he could be pretty good.’” 

And yet to hear B.J. tell it, that moment nearly never happened. A couple of years earlier, he was “probably a phone call away” from leaving Lower Merion because he wasn’t getting enough playing time under head coach Gregg Downer. But he stuck with it and ended up growing into not only a state champ but a top 100 overall high school prospect and a coveted piece of Syracuse’s 2013 recruiting class.

“I think that was pretty much the point where basketball really started clicking for me,” Johnson said. “Things happen for a reason. There was a reason I didn’t transfer. And there was a reason I did transfer from Syracuse. I really just look at it like everything happens for a reason.”

La Salle head coach John Giannini and his staff were obviously interested in B.J. when they heard he was transferring. They were interested, too, back when he was in high school but didn’t put too much pressure on him then because they knew Syracuse was his top choice, just ahead of Villanova.

This time around, though, returning to Philly was a big draw for B.J., just as it’s been for several other La Salle transfers over the past few years. And, in the end, he ended up choosing La Salle over Temple — though he insists sharing a college team with his dad was never the biggest consideration. 

“I took my visit here and saw what I needed to see,” he says. “Most of it had to do with Coach G and how honest he was. Temple has better facilities but, at the end of the day, it’s what you make out of it. And I thought Coach G would give me the best chance to do that.”

Sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules was naturally not the easiest thing to do but was made “less stressful” because he did it alongside two other transfers: Pookie Powell and Demetrius Henry. And, according to Owens, he made the most of the season by doing a “great job academically” and working tirelessly in the gym — sometimes perhaps even too much.

“G had to tell him on numerous occasions, ‘You have to give your body some rest,’” the La Salle assistant said. “He’s hungry like that.”

Much of that hunger stems from his father, who helped instill a fierce competitive streak in the newest La Salle star. One of B.J.’s most vivid basketball memories, aside from the Christmas photo, is a game of one-on-one he played vs. his dad when he was 12. His dad won the game and they haven’t played since.

“We’re both too competitive,” B.J. says. “If we do end up playing, it’s gonna have to turn into a one-on-one. And I just don’t think he wants to lose.”

The competition between the two extends even further than that as Bob has challenged his son to score more than the 870 points he scored for La Salle — a total that both B.J. and Owens believe can easily be reached in just two seasons.

And Bob will be cheering him on with every basket, as will the dozens of other family members and friends who fill up a couple of rows of Gola every game.

At times, B.J. tunes out his huge fan section — he estimates he gives away 18 tickets per game — just so he can focus on the task at hand. But the love and warmth of playing back in his hometown is not lost on him, especially during this time of year.

“Just being able to be around my family for the holidays for a change is nice,” he says.

And it’s bringing out the best in him after a couple of difficult years in upstate New York, both on and off the court.

“Sometimes when you feel lonely, you need a hug,” Owens says. “And you know you can get a hug at home.”

Villanova set to renew old-school rivalry with UConn

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Villanova set to renew old-school rivalry with UConn

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.

No. 1 Villanova (17-1, 5-1 Big East) at Connecticut (10-8, 3-3 AAC), Saturday, 12:00 p.m.
SK: 
Villanova and UConn renew an old-school Big East rivalry on Saturday afternoon, the first meeting of a three-game series that extends to the 2019-2020 season. The two teams have not met since the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament when the Huskies upset the Wildcats en route to a national championship.

While top-ranked Villanova has flourished in the revamped Big East, UConn's basketball program has become somewhat of an afterthought the past three years in the AAC under Kevin Ollie. The Huskies finished with a 16-17 record a year ago and are a middling 10-8 this season. UConn enters Saturday's matchup fresh off a 24-point loss at Memphis on Tuesday.

Villanova, meanwhile, is coming off arguably its most impressive performance of the season an 88-56 drubbing of Georgetown on Wednesday. The Wildcats dominated the Hoyas in their own building from start to finish, leading by as many as 44 points in the second half. Jalen Brunson finished with 18 points to lead six different Villanova players in double figures. They shot a collective 60 percent from the field and 51 percent from three-point range. 

Sophomore sixth man Donte DiVincenzo continued his torrid pace with 13 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the field. DiVincenzo's performance came on the heels of his career-high 25-point outburst at St. John's last weekend, a game in which he connected on six three-point field goals. The fact that DiVincenzo isn't in the starting lineup speaks to the strength of the Villanova program. It's not an exaggeration to say that DiVincenzo would start for 98 percent of the teams in the country.

Villanova's improvement defensively is a welcomed sight for Jay Wright. After allowing an average of 92 points in their first three conference games, the Wildcats have clamped down considerably on the defensive end — surrendering an average of just 64 points in their last three games. Look for that defensive resurgence to continue on Saturday against UConn, a team that has struggled to score as of late.

Villanova 79, UConn 65

Temple (9-9, 2-5 AAC) at Pennsylvania (12-5, 3-0 Ivy), Saturday, 2:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia
AF:
 This is always one of my favorite games to write about because of the connections between the two schools. Steven Donahue coached at Penn under Fran Dunphy, who enjoyed a lot of success as the Quakers head coach.

Before I get to the success that Penn has enjoyed this season, I have to discuss the Owls' string of recent heartbreak.

They’ve only won two of their last six games. But here’s the rub; if you throw out the loss to UCF, which I’m sure Coach Dunphy would appreciate, Temple has had those remaining five games decided by a combined 11 points. One basket, that could have been the deciding factor in turning one or more of those losses into wins.

So up next, a tough test at the Palestra, Dunphy’s old stomping grounds. Penn is off to its best start to a season since, you guessed it, Fran Dunphy was the coach. Just like back in the 2002-2003 season, the Quakers are also 12-5 at this point. That year, Penn went undefeated in Ivy play. So far this season, Penn is undefeated in Ivy play.

Yes, they have a long way to go in order to stay that way, but the Quakers are looking like the team to beat right now in the Ivy League. A.J. Brodeur is coming off his best game of the season, a 30-point effort with six three-pointers in the win over Columbia. Penn has two Big Five matchups before continuing league play in February, Temple then St. Joseph’s.

This weekend I think Penn keeps the good times rolling and the former assistant gets the best of his mentor.

Penn 72, Temple 70

Fordham (6-12, 1-5 A-10) at St. Joseph's (8-9, 3-3 A-10), Saturday, 1:00 p.m.
SK:
St. Joseph's rebounded from a pair of agonizing losses to George Mason and UMass to defeat Dayton, 81-65, on Wednesday. The Hawks are currently 3-3 in A-10 play but could easily be 5-1 if those heartbreaking losses turned out differently, which they easily could have.

The senior duo of James Demery and Shavar Newkirk combined for 36 points in the win over Dayton, while freshman forward Taylor Funk added 18 points and six rebounds. Then there's sophomore Pierfrancesco Oliva, who recorded a bizarre but beneficial stat line of 0 points and 15 rebounds.

St. Joseph's should be able to build on the momentum of Wednesday's win against Fordham on Saturday. The Rams have lost four straight games and six of their last seven, generally not showing much fight in the process. Expect the Hawks to set the tone early and cruise to a second straight victory.

St. Joe's 74, Fordham 59

La Salle (8-11, 2-4 A-10) at Richmond (5-13, 3-3 A-10), Saturday, 2:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
SK:
Before I get to how this matchup of struggling A-10 teams will play out, a salute to Dr. John Giannini.

The La Salle head coach recorded his 500th career win with the Explorers' 75-67 victory over Fordham on Wednesday. Giannini has endured his share of ups and downs during his 14-year tenure at La Salle. But the bottom line remains; he's done an admirable job in less than ideal circumstances. Any realistic La Salle fan will admit that recruiting is a challenge, something Giannini has dealt with by pursuing a number of transfers in recent years. In most cases, these transfers are Philadelphia kids who are looking for more playing time — guys like B.J. Johnson, Tyrone Garland and Ramon Galloway. It's a formula that helped Giannini take La Salle to the Sweet 16 in 2013 with Galloway and Garland playing key roles.

On occasion, you'll hear or see La Salle fans on social media calling for a coaching change. I don't understand that logic. I continue to believe Giannini is a good fit at La Salle and he deserves the opportunity to get the program back to where it was five years ago.

As for this Saturday's visit to Richmond, it will be a challenge for the Explorers. The Spiders are down this season but have found their footing over the last week with wins over George Washington and VCU. I expect Richmond to make it three straight wins at La Salle's expense this weekend.

Richmond 70, La Salle 65

Drexel (7-13, 1-6 CAA) at James Madison (5-13, 1-6 A-10), Saturday, 4:00 p.m.
AF:
 After picking up a marquee win over the College of Charleston two weeks ago — which was also their first conference win — the Dragons have hit a serious slump and dropped four straight games.

Zach Spiker’s squad is certainly struggling with scoring, but perhaps more importantly, is getting beat on the glass, sometimes almost two to one by their opponents. And any coach will tell you second-chance points are a real killer, not only to the momentum of the game but also for team morale.

In Drexel’s most recent loss, falling 90-68 at Towson, the rebounding differential was 46-25 in the Tigers' favor. It could be a problem for the Dragons this weekend against James Madison.

The Dukes are coming off a marquee win of their own, when they beat Elon in overtime Thursday night. They erased a 10-point deficit in the final 90 seconds to take down the Phoenix, which also was their first CAA win.

A player of note in this one, JMU’s Stuckey Mosley is averaging 19.5 points and one of four Dukes who average double figures. Neither team is going to contend for the CAA this year, but both have shown flashes. The road has not been kind to the Dragons.

I hesitate to pick against them because they win when I predict a loss, and lose when I predict a win. So I’ll go a little reverse psychology and say that they will win ... and I really mean lose.

JMU 78, Drexel 75

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
15-8
Amy Fadool: 12-13

No. 1 Villanova hands Georgetown worst loss in decades

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No. 1 Villanova hands Georgetown worst loss in decades

BOX SCORE

WASHINGTON -- After watching Villanova make 3-pointer after 3-pointer and build a hard-to-fathom lead -- 20, then 30, eventually all the way up to 44 -- Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing did not want to offer any sort of assessment about what this game indicates about his team's status in relation to the No. 1 Wildcats.

Understandably.

"I'm not even thinking about that," Ewing said. "All I'm thinking about is that they're a good team and tonight was their night. That's it."

Wright and Villanova gave Ewing a rude welcome back to the schools' rivalry, handing the Hoyas their worst loss in more than 40 years, 88-56 on Wednesday night.

"I've had my butt kicked before -- fortunately it was as a player -- and all I can do is get ready for the next one," Ewing said. "You can't dwell on it. Just got to look at the film and make adjustments and get ready for the next game."

Jalen Brunson led the way with 18 points and seven assists for Villanova (17-1, 5-1 Big East), which finished 17 for 33 on 3s, while Georgetown went 4 for 15.

Mikal Bridges scored 17 for the Wildcats, winners of seven consecutive games against the Hoyas, Villanova's longest streak in a series that dates to 1922.

"I'm just happy to be on this side of it. I've been on the other side. I feel for those guys, because we've been there," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

"Patrick's doing a great job with this program. They're very organized. They know what they want to do," Wright said. "And he's going to build this thing."

The last time Ewing faced Villanova in any capacity was in the last game of his college playing career at Georgetown, a surprising 66-64 victory for the underdog Wildcats in the 1985 NCAA championship game. It was quite clear, quite quickly, on Wednesday that there would be no such tight outcome --nor any chance of an upset by Georgetown (12-6, 2-5).

Villanova went on an 18-0 tear to go ahead 31-8 and that was that for any semblance of drama.

"This is our first game where we were just blown out from the beginning," said Jessie Govan, who led the Hoyas with 12 points.

Aided by a 1-2-2 press that Brunson said he thought "may have got to them a little bit," Villanova led 42-20 at halftime. Until then, Georgetown had more turnovers (nine) than made baskets, shooting 8 for 26, including 0 for 8 on 3s.

Asked about the 18-point run, Ewing replied: "I don't even remember."

This is his first season as a head coach at any level, and he opted to go with an easy-as-can-be non-conference schedule to try to build his players' confidence. Now that league play is underway, especially against a foe like Villanova, the gap between the Hoyas and the best teams is obvious.

Villanova just kept pushing the margin after the break, going up by 30, then 40, and then reaching the apex at 88-44 on a layup by Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree with about 3 minutes remaining. Less than a minute later, Wright finally sent on the subs and pulled any remaining starters.

"It's always fun," Brunson said, "when our team's making shots."

Big picture
Villanova: Since its only loss, 101-93 at Butler on Dec. 30, Villanova has won four games in a row, propelled by an efficient offense that gets a lot of its work done from beyond the arc.

Georgetown: This was the Hoyas' largest margin of defeat since a 33-point loss to Maryland, 104-71, on Dec. 10, 1974.

Injured and ill
Villanova: Collin Gillespie returned from a broken hand and had two points, three rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes. ... Reserves Tim Delaney and Jermaine Samuels sat out with a virus.

Georgetown: Backup PG Trey Dickerson left in the first half with a back spasm and did not return.

Up next
Villanova: Travels to UConn on Saturday in a matchup between former Big East rivals and the Wildcats' first game at Hartford in five years. Villanova is 12-0 in non-conference games heading into the last one on their schedule.

Georgetown: Hosts St. John's on Saturday, the teams' second meeting in less than two weeks. The Hoyas won 69-66 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 9.