NCAA

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova-Creighton the nation's top game New Year's Eve

fastbreak_friday.jpg

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova-Creighton the nation's top game New Year's Eve

CSN anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and producer Sean Kane get you set for all of the weekend's local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.
 
No. 1 Villanova (13-0, 1-0 Big East) at No. 10 Creighton (13-0, 1-0 Big East), Saturday 1 p.m.
SK:
You could see this showdown coming for a few weeks now. As No. 1 Villanova and No. 10 Creighton continued to pile up non-conference wins, all roads led to New Year's Eve in Omaha. Once each team took care of business in its conference opener (in Villanova's case barely) earlier this week, the stage was officially set — 13-0 against 13-0 in the biggest college basketball game of the weekend.

The college football playoffs are the main course Saturday, but the Big East is providing quite the appetizer earlier in the afternoon.
 
Villanova almost didn't make it to Nebraska undefeated. Luckily, the Wildcats had the best player in the country on their side Wednesday in a 68-65 win over DePaul. Josh Hart scored a game-high 25 points, including 10 in the final 3:06. Hart's biggest contribution was a three-pointer that gave Villanova a four-point lead with 10 seconds to go.
 
Hart's heroics aside, there was plenty for Jay Wright to be concerned with following Wednesday's win. The Wildcats were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball (14 turnovers) and inaccurate from the free throw line (18 for 26). They also shot 8 of 26 from three-point range and forced just seven DePaul turnovers.

But a win is a win. And the bottom line: Villanova has won 19 straight games dating back to last season, and its 13-0 record matches the best start to a season in program history.
 
Without injured guard Phil Booth, Wright is using a seven-man rotation. His top four players — Hart, Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges — are very good. But Villanova needs more production from starting forward Darryl Reynolds and reserves Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall.

Reynolds stands out the most. He played 33 minutes against DePaul and took one shot, finishing with three points and five rebounds. Reynolds is never going to be Daniel Ochefu in terms of a low-post scorer, but he has to be more of a threat offensively and that starts with looking for his shot more often. The Wildcats desperately need a more productive Reynolds to take some of the burden off of their perimeter players.
 
Villanova is going to have to elevate its play several notches Saturday against Creighton. The CenturyLink Center is always one of the more raucous venues in the Big East — it's never easy to win in Omaha, even when Creighton isn't particularly good. But the BlueJays are very good this season, as evidenced by that perfect 13-0 record and No. 10 national ranking.
 
Creighton has one of the best backcourts in the country with Philadelphia native Maurice Watson Jr. and Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster. Watson is the consummate playmaker, averaging 13.5 points and 9.1 assists. Foster has been good for a team-high 18.8 points while shooting better than 50 percent from the field.

The BlueJays have two other double-digit scorers, guard Khyri Thomas (12.9) and center Justin Patton (12.7).

Creighton is a very talented, well-coached team that will be plenty motivated to take down the No. 1 team in the country and prove they are legitimate contenders for not only the Big East title but the national championship as well.
 
Factor in a significant home-court advantage and everything points to a Creighton win. But until I see Hart let Villanova lose, I'm not picking against the Wildcats. Despite the considerable talents of Watson and Foster, Hart will be the best player on the floor Saturday. He has played in a ton of big games and won't be phased at all by Saturday's atmosphere — he scored 25 points at Creighton last season. I also expect Hart to get some help from fellow senior Jenkins, who is due for a big day after shooting just 31 percent in his last five games.   
 
Villanova 81, Creighton 78
 
Temple (9-5, 0-1 AAC) at Central Florida (10-3, 1-0 AAC), Saturday 4 p.m.
AF:
Who doesn't love playing Top 25 opponents? The Owls sure seem to enjoy it. Whether by design or just timing, Temple is coming off playing its fourth ranked opponent. They played well defensively against No. 23 Cincinnati, but poorly timed turnovers and an even poorer shooting night (26.7 percent from the field) doomed the Owls as they tried to earn a third win over a ranked team.

With the Cincinnati loss, the Owls start the conference portion of their schedule 0-1.
 
Obi Enechionyia failed to reach double figures in scoring in that game against the Bearcats. Despite leading the team with 15.5 points a game, Obi has scored in double figures just once in his last four games after starting the season by reaching that plateau in 10 straight. Fran Dunphy is going to need him to get going again because a balanced attack is how the Owls won those two games against ranked opponents in New York City. The good news however, is that Shizz Alston and Daniel Dingle have posted 10 or more points in their last five and four games, respectively.
 
Central Florida is a team Temple has enjoyed success against in recent years, having swept both meetings in each of the last two seasons. But the Knights are also quite familiar to the Owls and not just because they meet them twice every year in AAC play. These two shared four common opponents this season. Both UCF and Temple lost to Villanova and George Washington, while the Knights beat UMass when Temple did not. However, Temple took care of Big 5 rival Penn while UCF lost to the Quakers.
 
Safe to say there's plenty of game tape for each coach to watch in this matchup.
 
I'm going with Temple. I don't think the Owls will have another poor shooting performance like they did against Cincinnati. Let's be honest, hard to get much worse than 27 percent. But if Temple gets its shooting woes corrected, the defense is already in place. And that should equal a win.
 
Temple 68, UCF 62
 
La Salle (6-4) at Dayton (9-3), Friday 6 p.m.
AF:
I'm going to be the first to admit right here in this space that I didn't think these Explorers had it in them to take Villanova to the wire like they did a few weeks back. I was so impressed with their effort that I picked La Salle to beat Georgetown the following week. That didn't work out so well for me, but I'm still liking what I see from Dr. John Giannini's squad.

They came back from that Georgetown loss and had to fight and grind out wins over Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer. Both of those teams have been in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, so they are no pushovers. And against the Mercer Bears, the Explorers needed three overtimes to get the win.

Now, I know you might be saying: "Amy, three overtimes against Mercer, that impresses you?" Well, yes and no. I get that Mercer isn't Villanova. But what I did like seeing was that same fight La Salle showed in the loss to Villanova. They had a letdown with that kind of spirit against the Hoyas, so it was good to see it against FGCU and Mercer. If they play tough against all of their opponents, and "get up" like they did against 'Nova, then La Salle could make a little noise in the A-10.
 
The Explorers open up conference play Friday night in Dayton. Always a tough place to play — those Flyers fans really enjoy their basketball. Of course, La Salle enjoyed Dayton quite a bit a few years back in the NCAA Tournament, riding the momentum from the Dayton site games to the Sweet 16.

The Flyers are once again a tough Atlantic 10 opponent. They are well-coached and they have a historic senior class. Dayton's seniors have 87 victories right now; the winningest class in UD history finished with 97. So you'd think Kyle Davis, Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard are going to get at least 10 more wins on the season. 
 
Full disclosure, my in-laws are proud Dayton alums. So, I probably know more about Dayton than I should, including their fight song, which may or may not include: "Hey, hey U-D, the Flyers can't be beat." It's safe to say I've heard that song a lot more often and more recently than my own alma mater's fight song.
 
I'm not sure the Flyers can be beaten this weekend. It would take a big effort from all of the Explorers, not just B.J. Johnson, who has emerged as their leading scorer at just over 20 points a game.  But if Johnson, Jordan Price, Pookie Powell, and Amar Stukes all contribute well into the double figures, La Salle can pull off the upset. I just don't know if this is the game where all four of those guys catch fire.
 
Dayton 75, La Salle 70
 
Saint Joseph's (6-5) vs. George Washington (8-5), Friday 7 p.m.
SK: St. Joe's begins Atlantic 10 play at home Friday night against a George Washington team that has won five of its last seven games. That stretch includes a win over Temple — the Colonials beat the Owls, 66-63, at the Liacouras Center three weeks ago.  
 
Meanwhile, the first two months of the season have been a rollercoaster ride for Phil Martelli and the Hawks. Three straight wins to start the season were followed by four straight losses, but St. Joe's has rebounded to win three of its last four. The one constant has been the play of junior guard Shavar Newkirk, who has reached double figures in all 11 games and scored 20-plus points eight times. Newkirk is averaging 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists and is on the fast track to a First Team All-Big 5 selection.
 
This will be a very difficult test for St. Joe's. George Washington is an experienced, balanced team that typically doesn't beat itself. Something tells me the Hawks will be up to the challenge on their home court. In a conference opener that features two evenly matched teams, I expect St. Joe's to find a way to win. Look for Newkirk to once again play a starring role, with some help from his backcourt mate Lamarr Kimble.
 
St. Joe's 72, George Washington 68
 
Penn (5-5) vs. Fairfield (6-4), Friday 4 p.m.
SK:
Penn picked up a second straight win Wednesday over neighborhood rival Drexel, beating the Dragons, 75-67. Freshman big man A.J. Brodeur turned in yet another impressive performance with 19 points and 6 rebounds. Brodeur may be the best player in the city that no one is talking about. He's scored in double figures in all but one of Penn's games this season and is averaging 14.4 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting nearly 53 percent from the field.
 
Friday's visit from Fairfield marks the Quakers' final non-conference game before Ivy League play begins. Big 5 battles with St. Joe's and La Salle still await, but those matchups come in the midst of Ivy competition.

Fairfield is coming off an 89-83 win over Boston College last week and is led by dynamic junior guard Tyler Nelson, who is averaging 20.2 points.
 
Penn fans should be familiar with Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson, who previously coached and starred as a player at Princeton. Johnson was the 1997 Ivy League Player of the Year before leading Princeton to the 2011 Ivy League title as head coach. Johnson will have his work cut out for him beating his former rival on Friday at the Palestra. Penn is starting to hit its stride as conference play approaches, and I expect the Quakers to continue the positive momentum with a hard-fought win over Fairfield.
 
Penn 68, Fairfield 61
 
Drexel (6-7) at James Madison (2-11), Saturday 2 p.m.
AF:
The Dragons are coming off a valiant comeback effort against Penn this week. Down by as may as 13 points in the second half at the Palestra, Drexel cut that to just two points with 5:30 to play. It wasn't enough in the end to earn the victory but there were a few bright spots.

This game was on CSN Philly, shameless plug, and it was the first time I'd watched a complete Drexel game in a few weeks. I have to say that Miles Overton has found his shooting stroke. He transferred into Drexel with the reputation of a shooter and out of the gates of the season he hadn't displayed that stroke. Well, apparently the Palestra or the CSN Philly cameras did the trick. Overton made five three-pointers en route to a season-high 19 points. This has to be a good sign for head coach Zach Spiker to get that kind of contribution from Overton. It is probably a case of the team's finally coming together and working out the kinks of a new system and new coaches.
 
The Dragons start conference play before the ball drops on New Year's Eve. And they draw a good opponent to open CAA play. I'll tell you this about James Madison: The Dukes are playing for the FCS national championship next Saturday, the seventh against Youngstown State. That's about all you need to know about JMU. Oh, and our very own Ron Burke went there, that's a fun fact. As for their basketball team? Let's just say it's been a forgettable start to the season. The basketball Dukes have two wins … two. But the silver lining is that one of those wins came in their most recent game. Hey, you gotta start somewhere. A highly likely scenario is that the football Dukes earn more wins than the basketball Dukes. I may check back on this in March.
 
But they won't start a win streak to close out 2016.
 
Drexel 78, JMU 66
 
Prediction records
Amy Fadool: 9-3
Sean Kane: 9-3

Temple, Drexel battle for first time in a decade

usa-quinton-rose-temple.jpg
USA Today Images

Temple, Drexel battle for first time in a decade

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.

Drexel (5-5) at Temple (6-3), Saturday, 5 p.m.
AF:
The Owls are a good team, maybe frustrating at times, maybe one-dimensional at other times, but they are a good team. All you had to do was watch their most recent game, a 20-point loss to top-ranked Villanova, to see that in full effect. Temple was down the entire game but climbed back in it to cut the deficit to seven at one point thanks to the hot shooting of Quinton Rose. The sophomore shot a scorching 9 of 12 overall, including 4 of 5 from beyond the arc. But Villanova shut down pretty much every other offensive threat from the Owls. And one man alone cannot stop that Wildcats squad. 

In fact, after watching 'Nova so far this season, I’m questioning what team will beat the Wildcats. But that is for my co-author Sean Kane to ponder. Let us focus on this week’s matchup for the Owls, and that is Drexel. 

These two haven’t faced each other in 10 years. In fact, almost exactly to the date. Back on Dec. 15, 2007, Temple beat Drexel 64-51 at the Palestra. 

I have written about Drexel for every Fastbreak Friday thus far this season. In fact, I’ve written about Drexel for nearly every Fastbreak Friday since I started co-authoring this column four years ago. And this year’s team is as confounding as one I’ve encountered. 

Last week, I picked them to beat Robert Morris, a team I felt they should’ve easily handled even on the road. But they didn’t. The Dragons lost by double digits. Earlier that same week, they faced La Salle at the Gola. As a mid-week game, it was not subject to my prediction but I would’ve gone with the Explorers at home. But once again, I would’ve been wrong. Drexel led wire to wire and won at La Salle, 72-70. It gave Drexel its third win in a row at the time and the senior Dragons became the school’s first class ever to beat La Salle twice at Gola.

So who to pick this week? Temple is good. I covered that Drexel is confounding. I’m going with the Owls. The loss to Villanova wasn’t pretty. But we could be seeing a championship Wildcats team, so I'll throw it out the window.  

Temple 72, Drexel 65

Mercer (6-4) at La Salle (5-6), Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
SK:
La Salle is coming off its most impressive showing of the season — a 77-68 loss to top-ranked Villanova. It's not often you can point to a loss as an encouraging performance but that was exactly the case for the Explorers last Sunday. They had the lead at halftime and generally outplayed Villanova for the first 35 minutes of the game. If La Salle can duplicate that type of effort the rest of the season, the wins should start piling up. 

The Explorers had a full week to prepare for a Mercer team that won't be a pushover on Sunday afternoon. The Bears' four losses have come against UCF, Colorado, Tennessee and Memphis. And they beat Drexel by 19 in mid-November. That's the same Drexel team that won at La Salle a week and a half ago. 

La Salle doesn't lack for talent. That was on display against Villanova when B.J. Johnson, Amar Stukes and Pookie Powell combined for 49 points. The Explorers can play with anyone, it's simply a matter of attention to detail and bringing a consistent energy level each game. 

I like La Salle in this spot on Sunday. The combination of getting a confidence boost from the Villanova game, having a whole week to prepare and playing at home should be a winning formula for the Explorers. Mercer will put up a fight but in the end, I expect the Explorers' talent to prevail. 

La Salle 76, Mercer 70  

Maine (3-8) at Saint Joseph's (4-5), Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
SK:
Coming into play with a 4-5 record, Saint Joseph's gets a golden opportunity to climb back to .500 with a home game against a Maine team that only has one win this season against a Division l opponent. This is a game the Hawks should win comfortably.

The absence of sophomore forward Charlie Brown continues to be a big storyline for Saint Joseph's. Brown is the Hawks' best player and has yet to play this season due to a preseason wrist injury. There is no official word on his availability against Maine on Sunday. On the surface, it appears this would be a good game for Brown to be eased back in, but Phil Martelli could opt to hold him out until the start of Atlantic 10 play on Dec. 30. Or he could be sidelined even longer than that. The only certainty is St. Joe's needs Brown back in the lineup. 

Senior guard Shavar Newkirk has done an admirable job of sparking the offense in Brown's absence. He had 18 points and six assists in last Saturday's loss to Temple and is averaging a team-best 16.7 points per game. Factor in senior forward James Demery (16.6 ppg) and freshman forward Taylor Funk (14.7 ppg), and the Hawks have a nice stable of scorers. This has the makings of an explosive lineup once Brown returns. 

With or without Brown, look for Saint Joseph's to collect an easy win against Maine on Sunday.    

Saint Joseph's 81, Maine 60

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
7-4
Amy Fadool: 4-8

Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman give Temple nightmare as No. 1 Villanova rolls

usa-ap-jalen-brunson-omari-spellman.jpg
USA Today Images/AP Images

Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman give Temple nightmare as No. 1 Villanova rolls

BOX SCORE

In every play, there are protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains. And some of us are drawn to the heroes while others revel in the villains.

And in the latest act of the historic Villanova-Temple rivalry Wednesday night in North Philly, a well-known Villanova hero and loathed Temple villain left his footprint yet again.

But this time, he was joined at the hip by an emerging jersey and shorts-wearing hero from the Main Line and a new North Broad Street villain who drew his first taste of Temple blood.

Star junior point guard Jalen Brunson sparkled with 31 points on 11 of 16 from the field, including 6 for 10 from downtown, and redshirt freshman Omari Spellman scorched the nets for 27 points of his own as that duo led No. 1 Villanova to a thorough 87-67 beatdown of Temple at the Liacouras Center (see observations).

The victory extended the record Big 5 win streak to 22 games for the Wildcats, now 11-0 on the season. Temple fell to 6-3.

After the game, all eyes, lights, cameras and recorders were on the dominant twosome, and rightfully so.

“I was just able to make my shots,” said Brunson, whose 31 points Wednesday were a career high. “I tried to make the right play at the right time. They were taking away certain plays and certain passes, so I was just trying to be aggressive.”

That ruthless aggression was on full display in the first half when Brunson came blazing out of the gate. He scored 10 straight Villanova points in a 1:57 span to ignite a 15-1 Wildcats run that pushed an eight-point lead all the way to a 20-point lead.

On that 10-0 personal run, Brunson showed his shifty elusiveness by dazzling a Temple defender and the crowd with a spinning layup and then showing his range with two treys. As the half went on, Brunson was scoring with every blink of an eye. He finished the half with 22 points.

With redshirt junior Phil Booth, who entered averaging 12.7 points per night, limited with a virus, Villanova head coach Jay Wright had a feeling Brunson would take command of this one.

“He was incredible,” Wright said. “It’s really no surprise to us. He can do that every night, but we like to keep balance. With Phil Booth being out … I knew [Brunson] was going to be more aggressive. They did a really good job taking away our perimeter guys, so it forced somebody to go create shots.

“He made the shots tonight and that was the difference.”

The Liacouras Center is always hostile territory for anyone wearing blue and white, but especially so for Brunson, who spurned the Owls to sign with the Wildcats three years ago out of high school even though his father, Rick, is a Temple legend who starred under John Chaney in the early 1990s.

Temple fans haven’t forgotten and peppered Brunson with every word and name in the book on Wednesday, just as they did two years ago when he made his first trip to North Philly as a Wildcat. That game two years ago was his true freshman arrival as he dropped 25 points in a spectacular performance. He’s a Temple menace as he’s dropped 69 points on 23 of 33 shooting, including 13 of 20 from downtown in three games against the Owls.

“It is what it is,” Brunson said of the not-so-flattering words from fans. “I try to keep the same mindset throughout every game. Being aggressive, trying to set the tone defensively, tell my teammates and the younger guys that we make sure to play through the full 40 minutes.

“It’s being aggressive and just trying to be a killer. Tonight was just one of those nights I got it going.”

On to his partner in crime Spellman, who lit up the scoreboard in a variety of ways in his first exposure to this heated rivalry. The 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman torched the Owls for his 27 points on 11 of 14 from the field — 7 for 7 inside the arc and brilliant touch on 4 for 7 outside the arc. He’s a matchup nightmare, perhaps unlike Wright has ever had on the Main Line.

“It definitely helps to be around players that are as good as my teammates are every day,” Spellman said.  

“We know we need an inside presence, and we know he can do that,” Wright said of Spellman. “As we’re doing that with him, we’re working on footwork and we’re watching him. We chart our shooters and we said, ‘This kid is one of our best shooters. What are we doing?’

“We can’t disregard the fact he’s one of our best shooters. With Phil down tonight and losing (Collin) Gillespie, we said to him, ‘Yo, you gotta do this.’ I’m sure he’s been waiting for it. He’s never asked. But he showed he can do it tonight.”

The performances of both Brunson and Spellman are testaments to the rich depth Villanova has. Booth was limited and leading scorer Mikal Bridges had an off night with just seven points. He averaged 18.1 coming in.

Still, Villanova barely had to look back. Quinton Rose’s career-high 27 points guided Temple’s efforts, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Not even his three straight threes in the first half that cut Villanova’s lead to seven and his subsequent shout for his teammates to "Wake up!" did the trick.

“They’re a team that just goes on some killer runs and they did that, obviously in the first half, which hurt us greatly,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “We got it back to seven in that first half and then they go on a 10-0 run that spaces them again. … You can’t make a mistake, and when you do, they take great advantage of it. Those runs are just devastating.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons and Bridges wasn’t a dominating player here. He can be dominating. Phil Booth can be dominating. Tonight it was Brunson and Spellman. They’re just a really good basketball team.”

Dunphy is a Big 5 lifer who’s seen it all in this game. And he said those quotes with an exasperated tone to his voice. His guys gave Villanova their best shot on this evening and still fell the way they did.

That right there should tell you just how good and scary this Villanova team is.