NCAA

Penn State, Wisconsin have hopes beyond Big Ten title

Penn State, Wisconsin have hopes beyond Big Ten title

INDIANAPOLIS — The winner of the Big Ten Championship Game has an outside chance of slipping into the four-team College Football Playoff.

The loser knows that it has been formally — if not officially — eliminated.

It is a showdown between the third- and- fourth-best teams in the conference when No. 6 Wisconsin faces No. 8 Penn State in the Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday (8:17 p.m. ET, FOX).

The Badgers are ranked sixth in the latest CFP rankings and the Nittany Lions sit seventh. The winner will likely need both No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Washington to lose its conference title games as No. 5 Michigan is positioned to be the first benefactor should the Tigers or Huskies stumble.

So the fate of the winner is hard to determine and some players aren't spending much time worrying about it.

"I've said before: We can't control what (the selection) committee does," senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton said on a conference call. "For that decision to be made, the only thing we can do is just try to focus on the week of the game and try to play our best football and just put ourselves in the best position to be talked about."

Both squads have certainly put themselves in position to be discussed as two of the hotter teams in the country.

The Badgers (10-2, 7-2) won six consecutive games to claim the Big Ten's West Division. Wisconsin averaged 42.7 points over its last three contests and the defensive-oriented squad leads the nation with 21 interceptions.

Penn State (10-2, 8-1) enters with eight straight wins and averaged 40.4 points during the stretch en route to the East Division crown. The Nittany Lions registered a shocking upset of Ohio State on Oct. 22 and rode the momentum to win a division that includes both the Buckeyes and Michigan.

With both teams streaking and so much at stake, it's hard to downplay the magnitude of the teams' first matchup since 2013.

"It's going to be a great challenge," Penn State coach James Franklin said at a press conference. "I know our guys are excited."

This is the Nittany Lions' first-ever appearance in the Big Ten title game and it wasn't expected to occur this season.

Not just because of the powerful Buckeyes and Wolverines, but due to where Penn State's program had dropped in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal.

The legacy of Joe Paterno was tainted and the football program received a bowl ban and scholarship reductions. Worse to the players was the stigma hung over them despite no wrongdoing on their parts.

But suddenly the joy is back in Happy Valley with the Nittany Lions reveling in their best season since 2009.

"Yeah, there's a huge buzz going around right now," fifth-year senior defensive end Evan Schwan said at a press conference. "Before I got here, I always heard that whenever Penn State is playing well, Happy Valley is that much happier.

"You see it walking around campus. People that I have never met in my life will say, 'Hey, great game,' that kind of thing. I'm very, very appreciative of them supporting us throughout this entire ride."

Schwan is tied with junior defensive end Garrett Sickels for the team lead with six sacks for a unit that held three of its last four opponents to 14 or fewer points.

The Nittany Lions will be attempting to slow standout Wisconsin senior running back Corey Clement, who paces the offense with 1,140 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.

The Badgers are employing two quarterbacks in redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and senior Bart Houston. Hornibrook's output is 1,243 yards and eight touchdowns against seven interceptions, while Houston has 912 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.

Hornibook suffered a concussion during last Saturday's victory over Minnesota but was cleared to practice on Tuesday and is expected to play against Penn State.

Wisconsin's opportunistic defense ranks third nationally in scoring defense (13.7) and rushing defense (100.8 yards per game).

Among the standouts are senior free safety Leo Musso (team-best five interceptions), junior strong safety D'Cota Dixon (four picks), Shelton (four picks) and junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt (team-leading 9 1/2 sacks).

Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley suffered a right foot injury in Saturday's win against Michigan State but Franklin declined to discuss his status during a press conference.

Barkley is the team's most explosive weapon and rushed for 1,219 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Quarterback Trace McSorley enjoyed a breakout campaign as a sophomore by passing for 2,976 yards and accounting for 27 touchdowns (21 passing, six rushing). The passing yardage is the fourth-best single-season output in Penn State history.

Wisconsin has more experience on this stage as it is making its fourth Big Ten title game appearance in six seasons. And coach Paul Chryst sees the goal this time around -- winning and slipping into the national playoff.

"You always want to be the best you can be," Chryst said on a conference call, "and certainly, in college football, that's the pinnacle."

Big East game of the year on tap for Villanova

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USA Today Images

Big East game of the year on tap for Villanova

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. 3 Villanova (23-3, 10-3 Big East) at No. 4 Xavier (24-3, 12-2), Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
SK
: Villanova limps into Saturday's Top 5 showdown with No. 4 Xavier in both a literal and figurative sense. The third-ranked Wildcats will once again be without Phil Booth as he recovers from a broken hand. Eric Paschall is still rounding into form after returning from the concussion protocol in Wednesday's loss at Providence. Then there's Omari Spellman, who played against Providence with a facemask after suffering a facial fracture last weekend.
 
Injuries are the norm this time of year — every team in the country is dealing with them in some fashion. But there's no doubt that injuries to key players have taken their toll on the Wildcats, who have lost two of their last three games and didn't play particularly well in the one game they managed to win.

Wednesday's 76-71 loss to Providence was Villanova's worst performance of the season. The Wildcats turned the ball over 19 times, shot just 3 of 20 from three-point range and missed a handful of critical free throws. As a result, they trailed for the vast majority of the game, fighting an uphill battle they weren't able to win because of an uncharacteristic number of mental and physical mistakes.
 
But this is no time for Jay Wright's team to harp on the past. Regular-season games don't get much bigger than Saturday's visit to Xavier. Let's run through the checklist of what's at stake. The winner hops into the driver's seat in the race for the Big East regular-season championship, a title that Villanova has claimed in each of the last four seasons. If Villanova loses Saturday, it would fall two games behind Xavier in the loss column in the league standings. The Musketeers have just three games remaining after Saturday, so a two-game lead with three left pretty much wraps up the league title for Xavier. If Villanova wins Saturday, it would pull even with Xavier in the loss column but would own the tiebreaker thanks to a season sweep of the Musketeers. In that case, the Wildcats could win a fifth straight Big East regular-season championship by winning their remaining four games.
 
In addition to the regular-season league title, the accompanying No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament also hangs in the balance. Most importantly, No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament are also on the line. At the moment, both Villanova and Xavier are projected as 1-seeds in the Field of 68 next month. Saturday's winner will strengthen its grip on a No. 1 seed by adding a Top 5 win to its resume. The loser will be in serious jeopardy of missing out on any chance to be on the top line come Selection Sunday.
 
There's also the possibility of Villanova losing two straight games for the first time since March 2013. The Wildcats take a lot of pride in being able to bounce back following a poor performance. They'll have a golden opportunity to display that characteristic yet again in front of a national audience on Saturday.
 
The Wildcats are well aware of the importance of this weekend's matchup with Xavier. But that doesn't mean they'll treat the game any differently than the rest of their games this season. The one-game-at-a-time mindset has served the Villanova program well over the last five years. Jalen Brunson personifies that approach, and I expect him to come out extra motivated following his worst game of the season at Providence.
 
Xavier has plenty going for it on Saturday. First and foremost, the Musketeers will be super motivated to essentially wrap up their first-ever Big East regular-season championship. Xavier is led by a senior class of Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, Sean O'Mara and Kerem Kanter, a group that would like nothing more than to end their careers by dethroning Villanova as kings of the Big East. Xavier is also playing at home against a team that beat them by 24 points earlier this season, so the revenge factor is strong.
 
But I think the character of the Villanova program ends up carrying the day. Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Paschall have played in and won plenty of big games. For the first time in their careers, they are being doubted by people on the outside. I expect the Wildcats to seize this opportunity to show they're still the class of the Big East despite their recent struggles. Look for a few big plays from Brunson down the stretch.
 
Villanova 78, Xavier 75
 
Houston (20-5, 10-3 AAC) at Temple (15-11, 7-7), Sunday at 4 p.m.
AF: The Owls have found something at this point in the season, and it couldn’t come at a better time because February is the month it seems that the NCAA Tournament selection committee pays attention to the most. 
 
So it would have been a huge resume-builder if Temple was able to keep that lead over Top 20 ranked Wichita State on the road Thursday night. The Owls rained down 11 threes in the first half to build a 15-point lead. They scored 56 points in the opening frame, a season high. There was a game a month ago when Temple scored only 39 in the entire game.
 
The Shockers defense didn’t let that scoring continue in the second half, and they shut down Obi Enechionyia down the stretch. The senior did finish with 17 points, but he scored 11 of the Owls' first 13 points after the opening tip-off.
 
It was the first loss in six games for Fran Dunphy’s team. Coming in, the Owls had won five in a row and seven of their last eight. If they want to get back on the winning streak, they’ll have a tough test this weekend with Houston.
 
The Cougars just took down No. 5 Cincinnati for the program’s first win over a top-five team in over 20 years. It also gave Houston its 20th win of the season. One of the key factors in the upset win for Houston was offensive rebounds — 11 of them led to 17 second-chance points. When you are supposedly overmatched, taking advantage of those opportunities is key for pulling off the upset.
 
The good news is that Temple has been playing well and shooting well. The bad news is that so is Houston. But this one is at the Liacouras Center and it’s Hooter the Owl’s birthday party. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for mascots.
 
Temple 71, Houston 68
 
Penn (17-7, 7-1 Ivy) at Columbia (6-15, 3-5), Friday at 7 p.m.
Penn (17-7, 7-1 Ivy) at Cornell (9-12, 3-5), Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

SK: Penn has reached the midway point of the Ivy League schedule deadlocked with Harvard atop the conference standings. The Quakers missed an opportunity to take control of the league last weekend when they suffered their first conference loss at Harvard. But this weekend offers a chance to get back on the winning track against a pair of middling teams in Columbia and Cornell. Granted both games are on the road and as even the top-ranked teams in the country can attest, road games are no bargain this time of year.
 
The Quakers have no margin for error if they hope to win the Ivy League title and earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. Penn beat both Columbia and Cornell earlier this season at the Palestra but both games were tightly contested. Sophomore big man AJ Brodeur continues to play the role of steadying force for Penn, averaging 17.0 points and 7.7 rebounds in his last three games. Brodeur put up a season-high 30 points in the first meeting of the season against Columbia. Look for another big effort by Brodeur on Friday to get Penn's weekend road trip off to a winning start.
 
Penn 70, Columbia 63
Penn 67, Cornell 60

 
Duquesne (15-11, 6-7 A-10) at Saint Joseph's (11-14, 6-7), Saturday at 6 p.m.
AF
: The Hawks picked up a rare road win this week when they took down Fordham Wednesday. Yes, the Rams are at the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings, but a win is a win, and it snapped an eight-game road losing streak for St. Joe’s.
 
The Hawks are back home this weekend with a chance to make it three wins in a row when they welcome Duquesne to town. The Hawks' last two wins have come against teams below them in the conference standings. That will not be the case for the rest of February when they’ll face teams either tied with or above them in the A-10.
 
The Dukes are one such team at 6-7 in the standings, but they do have an overall winning record, something the Hawks nor their most recent opponents can say. Duquesne is much improved this year, already posting five more wins at this point than it had all of last season. Keith Dambrot has been a home-run hire for the Dukes, and if that name sounds familiar, you are either a big MAC fan, a big Akron Zips fan or a huge LeBron James fan. Dambrot coached LBJ in high school and is the winningest coach in Akron history.
 
So there are your fun facts for the day. I’d like to think that St. Joe’s has also turned a bit of a corner but they had a lackluster second half in the win over Fordham, a team much less talented than the Dukes squad coming in this weekend.
 
Duquesne 72, Saint Joseph’s 67
 
George Mason (12-14, 6-7 A-10) at La Salle (10-16, 4-9), Saturday at 2 p.m.
SK
: La Salle hasn't been showing much punch as the regular season winds down. The Explorers have lost three in a row and are 3-9 in their last 12. The latest setback came in the form of an 11-point home loss to St. Bonaventure on Tuesday. Sophomore guard Saul Phiri was a bright spot, scoring a career-high 22 points and knocking down 5 of 9 threes. It was an impressive performance for a guy averaging a little over six points per game on the season.
 
Saturday's visit from George Mason represents a chance for La Salle to rediscover a little winning mojo. The Patriots are only a couple games ahead of the Explorers in the A-10 standings but they've won three of their last four. It will be telling if the Explorers come out swinging Saturday afternoon or if they've already packed it in for the season. I expect a spirited effort. La Salle is every bit as talented as George Mason and more importantly in desperate need of some good vibes at this point in the season. Expect the Explorers to pull out a tight one and end their three-game losing skid.
 
La Salle 77, George Mason 74
 
Drexel (11-17, 5-10 CAA) at Hofstra (16-11, 9-6), Saturday at 4 p.m.
AF
: Earlier, I gave you some fun facts about Duquesne and its improvement from last season. So let’s continue that theme with Drexel. The Dragons already have two more wins than they did all of last season, and more importantly, they also already have two more conference wins than they earned all of last season. 
 
They’ve done that with some improbable wins over teams that, on paper, they should have lost handily to.
 
Thursday, it was almost another one of those type of wins for Drexel when it nearly took down one of the top CAA teams on the road with a narrow loss to Northeastern. Now, a chance to do it against Hofstra. The Pride are close to the top of the CAA, with a winning record and wins over Northeastern and William and Mary under their belts.
 
Yes, on paper this should be a Hofstra win. But I have picked Drexel to lose too many of these games this year and seemingly every time I do that, I get it wrong. So if I’m going down, I’m going down swinging. The Dragons are showing fight and firepower. They can score and defend with the best teams in their conference. Yes, it’s on the road, but I like them to snap their three-game losing streak.
 
Drexel 75, Hofstra 74
 
Prediction records
Sean Kane: 23-10
Amy Fadool: 21-16

Misery continues for lowly Delaware

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AP Images

Misery continues for lowly Delaware

BOX SCORE

TOWSON, Md. -- Mike Morsell had 19 points and Brian Starr added 15 as Towson held Delaware to two points over the final four minutes to win 67-65 on Thursday night.

Delaware's Ryan Allen pulled up to shoot a 3-pointer in the final seconds, but Eddie Keith II blocked it to secure the win.

Trailing 63-61, Keith hit a jumper with 3:33 remaining to tie and Alex Thomas split a pair of free throws to give the Tigers a 64-63 lead with 2:49 left. Keith added another free throw and Starr dropped in two more before Delaware's Ryan Daley scored on a fast break to close to 67-65 with 14 seconds left.

Delaware had a 32-30 halftime advantage but the Tigers (18-10, 8-7 Colonial Athletic Association) won the second period 37-33. There were 16 ties and 12 lead changes in the game.

Morsell hit 3 of 6 from distance and Starr made 4 of 7 from the floor with two treys.

Ryan Daly and Anthony Mosley had 18 points apiece to lead Delaware (11-17, 4-11), who have lost nine straight.