Fastbreak Friday: Villanova looks to extend unprecedented 5-year streak

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Fastbreak Friday: Villanova looks to extend unprecedented 5-year streak

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. 4 Villanova (7-0) at Saint Joseph's (4-3), Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Villanova enters the latest installment of its rivalry with St. Joe's aiming for a 20th straight Big 5 win after cruising past Penn, 90-62, on Wednesday night. The fourth-ranked Wildcats’ record-setting run of dominance over their city rivals has been nothing short of remarkable. Seventeen of their last 19 Big 5 wins have come by double digits. The last time a city team came within 10 points of Villanova ... December of 2012.

It was more of the same Wednesday against Penn, with the Wildcats sprinting out to an 18-point halftime lead en route to a 28-point win. Juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges continued to prove they belong on the short list of the best 1-2 punches in the country, combining for 37 points on an efficient 11 of 17 shooting.

However, the most important development from Wednesday’s win was the emergence of redshirt freshman big man Omari Spellman, who scored 10 of Villanova’s first 16 points against Penn. Spellman finished with 14 points and seven rebounds and went six of 12 from the field, including two of three from three-point range. This performance came after Spellman struggled mightily on the offensive end in Villanova’s three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. Spellman is the X-factor for the Wildcats — his confidence and effectiveness will go a long way in determining the level of Villanova’s success.

Meanwhile, Saint Joseph’s is coming off an 83-70 win over Bucknell on Wednesday. Seniors James Demery and Shavar Newkirk combined for 39 points as the Hawks shook off a lackluster showing at the Wooden Legacy Tournament over Thanksgiving weekend. Saint Joseph’s is still without the services of its best player, Charlie Brown, who remains sidelined due to a preseason wrist injury.

The Hawks will be significant underdogs against Villanova but expect them to put their best foot forward playing on their home court. Hagan Arena will be rocking Saturday night, but that shouldn’t faze the veteran Wildcats and their extraordinarily poised floor general Brunson. Look for Villanova to pull away in the second half for a 20th straight Big 5 victory.

Villanova 81, Saint Joseph’s 66

Temple (4-1) at George Washington (3-4), Sunday, 2:30 p.m. on NBCSP
 It’s said those who don’t learn from their mistakes, bear to repeat them. The Temple Owls learned that very lesson this week. Once again they found themselves with an 11-point lead in the second half for the second time in a week. But on Thursday, the Owls kept their foot on the gas pedal to put away South Carolina and win by 16 points. 

Earlier in the week, an 11-point lead with 11 minutes to go was quickly erased by La Salle in a hard-fought Big 5 battle that saw the Explorers come away with the victory. 

And that feeling of what could’ve been traveled with Temple to Madison Square Garden on Thursday as they faced South Carolina in the Under Armour Reunion tournament. Temple led the Gamecocks by 11 at the half, but kept pouring it on a defensively top-ranked team and closed out the game, winning 76-60. 

Up next, it’s another tournament away from Philadelphia. In fact, the Owls have only played one game, their lone loss which came to the Explorers, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Maybe Fran Dunphy is onto something here. 

This weekend it’s the BB&T Classic in our nation’s capital. George Washington comes into the game struggling out of the gates a bit, though the Colonials did win their most recent game against Morgan State. They are paced by Yuta Watanabe, who’s averaging nearly 15 points per game in the early season and just posted 26 in the win over Morgan State this week. 

If you think you've heard of Watanabe before, you’re right. The senior had the distinction of being the first ever Japanese-born player to receive a Division I basketball scholarship in 2014. But he’s no gimmick. So the Owls will have their hands full. 

The good news, Temple has serious depth all over the court, and maybe most notably now in their frontcourt. Sophomore center Damion Moore has been very solid off the bench and earned his first career double-double in the win over South Carolina with 20 points and 10 rebounds. 

Temple continues it’s winning streak away from Philly. 

Temple 78, George Washington 67 

La Salle (4-3) vs. Towson (6-1), Friday, 2 p.m. in Belfast Classic in Ireland
La Salle heads across the pond to take part in the Belfast Classic in Northern Ireland this weekend, beginning with Friday afternoon’s matchup with Towson. The Explorers have momentum on their side following last Sunday’s dramatic comeback win over Temple.

La Salle trailed Temple by 11 midway through the second half, only to storm back to close the game on a 32-17 run. Junior Pookie Powell and senior B.J. Johnson were terrific for the Explorers, scoring 29 and 25 points, respectively.

Friday’s game against Towson certainly won’t be a walk in the park for La Salle. Towson is 6-1 on the season, including an eight-point win over Penn. Keep in mind that La Salle needed two overtimes to beat Penn two weeks ago. But I like how the Explorers are playing right now. Expect plenty of points in this one, with La Salle eventually outlasting Towson in the opening round of the Belfast Classic.

La Salle 79, Towson 75

Rider (5-2) at Drexel (3-4), Saturday, 4 p.m.
Drexel has been on quite a ride in the early season. They beat Houston but lost to NJIT. That's not an indictment on either of those opponents as much as it's a quandary as to the identity of this Drexel team. The Dragons scored 84 points in the win over Houston but could only muster 53 in the loss to NJIT.  Points seem to be at a premium for Zach Spiker's team. In two of their four losses, they failed to crack the 60-point mark. But to no surprise, it's the exact opposite in their three wins.

Most recently, the Dragons capped off a furious second-half comeback and won the game with 13 seconds to go. Yes, it was against a winless Lafayette team, but it was a win nonetheless and one in which they needed all of their scorers to contribute. Perhaps most importantly, it was another breakout game for Tremaine Isabell. The junior was seven of 15 from the field for 19 points. He also came away with eight rebounds, four assists and two steals. Isabell is the engine that makes the Dragons go, but like any motor, it takes more than one part to get things going. Austin Williams continues to provide a consistent post presence, but Spiker needs more from veteran Sammy Mojica, who did add 10 points but on three of 14 shooting.

This weekend, Drexel will face a tested Rider squad. Rider is legit, and not just, 'Hey, we're a lower mid-major, we can play' type of legit. The Broncs have only two losses. One came in their second game, on the road, against top-25 Xavier. The second was just this week against another Big East team. But the Providence Friars needed the final minutes to take care of Rider by just four points. That tells me plenty. Well, that, and what I hear from a valued member of this website's staff who proudly attended Rider. In fact, he may have posted this very story, so, "Hi, Jordan Hall." I know that a strong contingent of Bronc supporters will be taking the Bronc Zoo to the DAC this weekend. And they should be rewarded with a win.

Rider 85, Drexel 77

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
Amy Fadool: 3-5

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.