NCAA

Fastbreak Friday: No. 6 Villanova ready for big things despite key losses

College basketball is back and so is Fastbreak Friday. Each Friday, NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and senior producer Sean Kane get you set for all the local college hoops action over the weekend. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season — we'll make predictions and keep track of our records throughout.

Columbia at No. 6 Villanova, Friday 8:30 p.m.
Kane:
Villanova opens up against Columbia at the Wells Fargo Center, where the Wildcats will play 12 games this season while the Pavilion undergoes renovations. This is the first time these teams have met since 2012 when Columbia beat Villanova convincingly. It was a loss that served as a turning point for the Wildcats' season that year and eventually became the springboard for this unprecedented run of success Jay Wright's program has enjoyed.  

The Wildcats lost quite a bit of firepower from last season's team that won 32 games, Big East regular season and tournament championships, and spent a good chunk of the year as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. First-team All-American Josh Hart is now playing for the Lakers, while Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds also moved on. But Wright has been through this before. During this run, he's had to replace the likes of Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston.

The faces change but the results remain — Villanova has a 129-17 record (.883 win percentage) over the last four seasons, including a ridiculous 63-9 mark in conference play. Over that span, the Wildcats have won four straight Big East regular-season titles, two Big East Tournament championships and a national championship.

There's no reason to think that high level of success won't continue this season (see season preview). Wright reloads with first-team preseason All-American Jalen Brunson leading a group that also features Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth, Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall. This Wildcats team will be significantly deeper than last year when the rotation was whittled down to six or seven players at times. Villanova figures to go nine-deep this year, with a handful of starting-caliber players coming off the bench.

Booth and Spellman are the keys. If Booth can stay healthy (he played just three games last season because of a knee injury) he gives the Wildcats a dynamic scoring option on the perimeter. Spellman, meanwhile, has the potential the be the best post player Wright has coached at Villanova. His offensive skills are NBA-caliber and he spent the last year getting himself in terrific shape after he was ruled academically ineligible prior to last season.

Expect more of the same from Villanova over the course of the next five months. The Wildcats will get the ball rolling with an easy win over Columbia.

Villanova 82, Columbia 59

Saint Joseph's at Toledo, Saturday 7 p.m.
Fadool:
 The Hawks open the season with realistic expectations of a return trip to the NCAA Tournament (see season preview). It could’ve been back-to-back years for Saint Joseph’s, if not for the injury bug that plagued the team throughout the season, but especially late. 

The Hawks lost four players to season-ending injuries. So this year, it probably comes as little surprise to Hawks fans that they begin the year with another key loss to the starting lineup. As a freshman, Charlie Brown earned All-Atlantic 10 honors thanks to his nearly 13 points and five rebounds per game. He played in every game for Phil Martelli, starting all but one of the Hawks' 31 games. But Brown begins the season on the shelf after undergoing surgery in late October to repair a wrist fracture. He’s expected to miss several weeks. If the Hawks can get through the first month or so of the season relatively unscathed, they should be set up nicely for conference play at the very end of the year, leading into 2018. But that’s no small feat with games against Princeton, Villanova and Temple all coming in the next four weeks. 

The Hawks open up on the road against Toledo, a middle of the pack MAC team. The good news is that the Rockets lost three of their starters from last season. The somewhat bad news is that they are a scoring machine, especially from beyond the arc; and they only added to that with Tre’Shaun Fletcher, a transfer from Colorado. Fletcher shot an impressive 40 percent from three in Pac-12 play two seasons ago and is now eligible for Toledo after sitting out a year. 

At this week’s Coaches vs. Cancer preseason luncheon, Coach Martelli said that defense isn’t as important as people think, cracking the joke that no championship has ever been won 2-0. But the other five city coaches in attendance all countered that notion, most notably Jay Wright, who pointed out that Martelli’s teams are always some of the best defensive teams in the country. Wright talked about the number of defensive rebounds the Hawks average and how St. Joe's also is a leader when it comes to not committing fouls.

That stingy and sound defense is going to help carry the Hawks through some tough games early on without one of their star players.

Saint Joseph’s 71, Toledo 68

Pennsylvania at Fairfield, Saturday 1 p.m.
Kane:
I'm bullish on this Penn team. Bullish with a capital "B". They showed what they're capable of towards the tail end of last season when they made a surprising run to the Ivy League tournament and nearly knocked off top-seeded Princeton in the semifinals. I'll get my first prediction of the season out of the way — the Quakers will win the Ivy League this season and return to the NCAA Tournament. 

Penn will go as far as sophomore big man A.J. Brodeur takes them. I mean this as a compliment — Brodeur has no business playing in the Ivy League. He's the type of player who would more than hold his own in the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, or any other power conference. Brodeur led the team in scoring and rebounding last season as a freshman while setting a new program record for blocked shots in a season. He's poised to dominate the Ivy League as a sophomore.

Then there's Ryan Betley, who was the key to the Quakers' late-season surge a year ago. Betley missed the first month of his freshman season with a broken hand but returned to show why head coach Steve Donahue is so high on him. Betley is a fierce competitor with perimeter scoring skills to match. Factor in sharpshooter Jackson Donahue and the return of Antonio Woods, and this Penn team has the look of a 20-win team.

Look for the Quakers to start the season with a win at Fairfield on Saturday. 

Pennsylvania 71, Fairfield 60

St. Peter's at La Salle, Saturday 3 p.m.
Kane:
It's a fresh start for La Salle, a team that endured its share of ups and downs last season. The Explorers ended up with a 15-15 record and 9-9 mark in A-10 play. It was the type of mediocre season than Dr. John Giannini plans to avoid this time around. 

Giannini has the talent on his roster to finish in the top half of the league standings. B.J. Johnson, Pookie Powell and Amar Stukes are a talented and experienced trio that should be able to hold their own against anyone in the A-10. The supporting cast will ultimately tell the story of this La Salle season — who steps up to make the difference in those close games the Explorers generally tend to find themselves in. 

La Salle opens up with St. Peter's, a team that won 23 games and a CIT title last season. One of the Peacocks' key players is Nnamdi Onechionyia, the brother of Temple senior Obi Onechionyia. The Onechionyia connection aside, this is a game La Salle should win. Expect the Explorers to start the season on a winning note Saturday afternoon.

La Salle 77, St. Peter's 68

Bowling Green at Drexel, Friday 7 p.m.
Fadool:
The Dragons enter this season in Year 2 with Zach Spiker at the helm and I expect improvement. And not just because they failed to reach the double-digit win total last year with a 9-23 record. But Spiker can win. He won at his previous stop, Army, and it is not an easy task to win games at a service academy. But Spiker did and was named 2013 Patriot League Coach of the year.  

One of the things working in Spiker’s and Drexel’s favor: Kurk Lee. Last season, he broke Drexel’s freshman scoring record with 478 points while posting top- CAA numbers in points, steals and assists. Lee will be the Dragons’ leading scorer and I expect Sammy Mojica to be right behind. The senior, who’s posted quality minutes since his freshman year, rounds out a good senior core with Miles Overton and Austin Williams. 

Drexel opens at home Saturday and that’s a good thing because Spiker’s squad was not a road warrior last season, going 4-14 away from the DAC. But they welcome in a Bowling Green team who also had a tough time on the road last year, winning only three away games. 

Drexel 68, Bowling Green 61