NCAA

As college career ends, St. Joe's Aaron Brown ready for final March

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As college career ends, St. Joe's Aaron Brown ready for final March

There were times when Aaron Brown felt alone.

Not only was he 300 miles from home and missing his family and friends, but he also wasn’t quite sure why his playing time with the West Virginia men’s basketball was drying up.

But whenever he felt that way, Brown knew exactly what to do: Call his father, William Brown.

“It was tough, man,” said the younger Brown, now a senior at St. Joe's. “There were nights I would call him frustrated. He always had the right thing to say. I’d like to thank him for that.”

These days, the elder Brown goes to every one of his son's home games and takes long car rides for most of the road contests, too. But back then, when the Darby native and former Penn Wood High star played for West Virginia during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, Brown’s father couldn’t get to as many games as he would have liked. Instead, he tried to lift his son's spirits as often as he could on the phone, telling him to work hard and keep his head up.

And even though Brown had some good moments with the Mountaineers, including getting the starting nod in their 2012 first-round NCAA Tournament game vs. Gonzaga, they both agreed it was time to move on and try something else after two seasons in Morgantown.

"When he wanted to transfer, he said, 'Dad, I want to come back home,'" William Brown recalled from the Hagan Arena lobby during halftime of the Hawks’ win over Saint Louis on Sunday. "I said, 'Fine, pick a school you want to play for, talk about it and find a good fit for you.'"

In many ways, that school was always going to be St. Joe's, which recruited him hard while he was at Penn Wood, where he won a state title in 2010. And it’s definitely fair to say that picking the Hawks worked well as Brown is now a veteran fifth-year senior on a surprisingly dominant SJU team that will go for its 25th win of the season Wednesday night vs. St. Bonaventure before coming home to face Duquesne in its regular-season finale Saturday — Brown’s final game on Hawk Hill.

"I've been through a lot of ups and downs in my career,” Brown said. "To finish my college career on top, having a very good season, with the chance of doing some good things in March — that’s all I can ask for."

Brown might not be the star player he was in high school anymore but he doesn’t have to be. DeAndre’ Bembry and Isaiah Miles, two of the best players in the Atlantic 10, handle that just fine. Like everyone else on the Hawks, Brown understands his role, emerging as a very solid third option (he’s third on the team in scoring at 9.1 ppg). And unlike his rocky tenure at West Virginia, Brown feels secure in his place in the rotation, having started every game this season while providing valuable leadership, on and off the court.

“He’s handled his business like a senior — and I mean his business here on the court and his business on the hill,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “He’s driven to get a degree, and that’s watched by everyone here because for a long time you would have identified him as a guy that’s just into basketball.

“And he’s been willing to sacrifice. As Isaiah’s game has taken off, Aaron’s opportunities have become a little less frequent. But he fits. From a very young age, he’s been driven to win, and he has brought that winning approach to our locker room and on the court for us.”

Brown got his first taste of winning at St. Joe’s during his transfer year two seasons ago.

It hardly mattered that he couldn’t play in games because of NCAA transfer rules; he still felt like a big part of the team because of the fierce battles he had against ex-Hawks star Langston Galloway in practice, among others. And Martelli still marvels at how quickly Brown got onto the court from the stands to celebrate the Hawks’ 2014 Atlantic 10 Tournament championship.

"I would say this," Martelli recalled. "I don’t think anyone was more excited."

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been too surprising. How could he not get excited when his hometown team booked a place in the NCAA Tournament? And that excitement only increased when Brown began to suit up for the Hawks the following season, playing in front of many family and friends, just a few miles from where he grew up, where he likes to return every Sunday for a home-cooked meal.

Of course, the homecoming also came with its share of challenges with Brown admitting he had to "block out some people" and focus on those giving him the "right advice," like his dad. But Martelli thinks those issues are all in the past, especially as Brown has grown and matured.

"I think early on it was hard because the people at home were telling him certain things — out of love, not out of disrespect," the St. Joe’s coach said. "And I think that he heard the noise and kind of didn't know which way to turn. But I think certainly this year he's been very zeroed in on what I have to say to him about academics, what I have to say about handling his business in the community and what I have to say to him about basketball.

"And the people that have been closest to him have been very supportive because they want success for him."

This season is already a success as St. Joe’s already has matched its best win total since the famous 2003-04 campaign. Did Brown think that was possible after the Hawks sputtered to a losing record last season, his first one playing for them?

"We always thought that if we worked, we could be as a good as anybody," Brown said.

"Everyone asked me, 'How are you guys gonna be? How are you guys gonna be? I was always like, 'Listen, we’re gonna surprise a lot of people.' I’ve been saying that since Day 1 and that’s what we’re doing."

Given their regular-season success, many hope the Hawks will continue to surprise people in the Atlantic 10 tourney and then the NCAA Tournament, where it increasingly looks like they’ll finish their season.

For Brown, that would naturally be a great bookend to his college career — one that proved to be tumultuous but also, in the end, extremely gratifying.

And he’s ready to feel the madness of March one last time as a college basketball player.

"The experience was great," Brown said of his appearance in the 2012 NCAA Tourney. "I enjoyed every minute of it. That’s why I try to stress how important these games are — because that feeling of the NCAA Tournament is like no other. I would like everyone to feel that."

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