Fastbreak Friday: Villanova goes for Battle 4 Atlantis championship

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Fastbreak Friday: Villanova goes for Battle 4 Atlantis championship

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. 5 Villanova (5-0) vs. Northern Iowa (5-1), Friday 12:00 p.m. in Battle 4 Atlantis Championship 
Villanova has done its part in a tournament that’s been unpredictable from the outset. The Wildcats used a strong second-half performance in each of their wins to this point in the Battle 4 Atlantis — pulling away for a 66-58 victory over Western Kentucky on Wednesday before overcoming a 12-point halftime deficit Thursday against Tennessee.

Meanwhile the other ranked teams in the field — No. 2 Arizona and No. 18 Purdue — have each yet to win a game in the tournament and will meet Friday night in the seventh-place game. So rather than a much anticipated top-5 showdown against Arizona in the championship game, Villanova will face Northern Iowa. 

A win would give the Wildcats their second Battle 4 Atlantis title in the last five years. It would also mark a fifth straight in-season tournament championship for Villanova. They won the Battle 4 Atlantis in 2013, the Legends Classic in 2014, the Preseason NIT in 2015, and the Charleston Classic in 2016.

Things won’t come easy against a Northern Iowa team whose only loss of the season came at No. 9 North Carolina on opening night. The Panthers are a tough, disciplined team that likes to grind it out in the halfcourt. Expect a more deliberate, low-scoring game than the one Villanova played Thursday against Tennessee.

Northern Iowa runs its offense through star big man Bennett Koch, who averages 16 points and seven rebounds per game. UNI already has wins over SMU and NC State in the Battle 4 Atlantis and the Panthers will be eager to add a top-5 win to their resume with a victory over Villanova.

Priority No. 1 for Villanova will be staying out of foul trouble, something they failed to do Thursday against Tennessee. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman all spent extended periods of time on the bench after picking up quick fouls. Brunson and Bridges still managed to be the difference makers — combining for 46 points despite playing just 29 and 23 minutes, respectively.

Look for more of the same from Brunson and Bridges in Friday’s championship game with a little more help from Omari Spellman, who was held to just one field goal Thursday. You should also expect Villanova to come out more focused in the first half after lackluster performances in the first 20 minutes of each of their last two games.

It should translate to another addition to what’s become a crowded Villanova trophy case.

Villanova 68, Northern Iowa 60

Temple (3-0) vs. La Salle (3-3), Sunday 5:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Temple may have started its season later than most, but the Owls have come out of the gates strong. They began the year at the Charleston Classic, which they promptly won after posting three straight victories. And all three came in convincing fashion, beating Old Dominion, Auburn and Clemson by an average of 10.6 points.  

It was a team effort from the Owls, but they were powered by their senior co-captain Obi Enechionyia. The forward scored in double figures in all three wins and was the tournament’s MVP. Also, look for Enechionyia to pass the 1,000 point mark for his Temple career Sunday. He only needs two more points to reach that plateau. 

As great as Enechionyia played in the Classic, probably the best sight for Fran Dunphy and the rest of the Owls faithful on that court in Charleston had to be Josh Brown. The redshirt senior is back after missing nearly all of last year because of a torn Achilles. In the opening three games, Brown tallied 26 total points and seems to be getting his legs under him after sitting out such a long time. 

La Salle has hit a bit of a skid lately. But that’s more of a testament to the tough schedule John Giannini has laid out for his team than an actual poor performance on the court. The Explorers' three-game losing streak began with a loss to No. 20 Northwestern, it continued against Boston College and most recently came in the form of a defensive battle against No. 11 Miami. 

The game against the Hurricanes actually took place in Reading, billed as the return of hometown star Lonnie Walker, a freshman for Miami. This one was not pretty if you like offense. At the half, it was all square at 19. Nineteen whole points were all either team could muster after the opening twenty minutes. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a good game. Two hard-nosed teams fighting to the end and fighting to reach the 50-point mark. 

But in the end, La Salle needed scoring, and with only two players really accounting for that in B.J. Johnson and Pookie Powell, it wasn’t enough. All the defense in the world won’t get it done when you can’t muster more than 50 points in a game. But seeing what that defense could do against a very good Hurricanes squad has to keep La Salle’s opposing coaches up at night. 

Temple is no slouch when it comes to pressure defense, so I don’t anticipate this one being a high-scoring affair. And as much as I’d like to go with the home squad at the Gola, it’s hard to pick against a team who’s riding the momentum of three straight wins. 

Temple 64, La Salle 60

St. Joseph’s (2-2) vs. Harvard (2-3), Friday 4:00 p.m. in Wooden Legacy
The biggest challenge for St. Joe’s will be putting Thursday’s frustrating loss to Washington St. behind them. The Hawks led the Cougars by as many as 20 points in the first half, only to be outscored by 18 in the second half in a 75-71 loss.

Shavar Newkirk led the Hawks with 24 points in the loss but needed 21 shots to get those 24 points. The Hawks continue to play shorthanded without Charlie Brown, who is still working his way back from a preseason wrist injury. Freshman forward Taylor Funk has stepped up in Brown’s absence. However, Funk was held to a season-low eight points against Washington St. — the first time he’s failed to crack double digits this season.

The Harvard program has taken a step back after dominating the Ivy League in recent years. The Crimson have lost three straight games, including Thursday’s 18-point loss to No.  21 St. Mary’s. 

Expect St. Joe’s to play angry after squandering that big lead Thursday and pull away from Harvard in the second half.

St. Joseph’s 74, Harvard 63 

Drexel (2-3) vs. NJIT (2-2), Saturday 4:00 p.m.
I owe the Dragons, Zach Spiker and the Drexel basketball fans an apology. I did not think this team had a snowball’s chance in a desert of beating Houston. Last week in this column, I predicted (extremely incorrectly) that Houston would dispatch the Dragons by double digits. They did not. Instead, Drexel outscored the Cougars, 46-35, in the second half and won by four points. Nicely done. I won’t mention the clear hangover-type letdown of a 20-point loss to Mercer the very next night. Let’s be positive. 

In the final game of the Paradise Jam, it was a double-overtime heartbreaker at the hands of Drake (not the rapper, but a school in Iowa) to close out the tournament. 

This one against New Jersey Institute of Technology should be easier for the Dragons to bounce back with a victory. NJIT did enjoy some Division-III success a number of years ago, reaching that level’s Final Four. But NJIT is better known for fun things like applied mathematics, biomedical engineering, and solar-terrestrial physics. Yes, I looked that up.  

Drexel 79, NJIT 68

Penn (4-3) vs. Monmouth (2-3), Saturday 7:00 p.m.
The Quakers enjoyed their time in Florida this past week and it wasn’t just because of the warm sun, clear skies and beach sand. They won two out of three in the Gulf Coast Showcase. In fact, Penn has won four of its last five games. And they’ve done it all away from home. Steve Donahue’s team won’t return to the historic confines of The Palestra until after Christmas, on Dec. 27th. 

In the tournament, A.J. Brodeur was the only Penn player to post double-figure scoring in all three games. The dynamic duo of Brodeur and Ryan Betley is the engine that makes the Quakes go. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some kudos to Darnell Foreman. The senior guard has done everything asked of him, and he’s become a key factor, scoring over 11 points on average, with four assists per game. 

Monmouth is probably better known for its crazy bench mob and not making the NCAA tournament a few years ago than anything else. They’ve had better seasons, or at least better starts to their seasons. But with only two wins so far, and by a combined nine points, King Rich is still searching for a way to get Monmouth going. 

Penn 72, Monmouth 70

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
Amy Fadool: 2-3

Temple, Drexel battle for first time in a decade

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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.
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.
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.
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:
Amy Fadool: 4-8

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

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


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.