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.”

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, 8:00 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 St. Joseph's (1-1), Saturday. 7:00 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. 

St. 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

NBC Sports Philadelphia announces college basketball schedule

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NBC Sports Philadelphia announces college basketball schedule

NBC Sports Philadelphia announces their 2017-18 NCAA Basketball schedule with 33 games featuring local teams, and CIAA and CAA Championship action. Local action tips off tonight with the Delaware Blue Hens traveling to Richmond to take on the Spiders at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia+.
 
Other local teams featured this season include Temple, Saint Joseph's, La Salle, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.
 
Throughout the year, NBC Sports Philadelphia and NBC Sports Philadelphia+ will air a number of collegiate basketball magazine programs including "Inside Villanova Basketball with Jay Wright," "The Penn State Basketball Story," and "Penn Athletics Winter Preview Special."