Villanova looks to keep insane 4-year streak alive

Villanova looks to keep insane 4-year streak alive

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.

Marquette (11-4, 2-1 Big East) at No. 3 Villanova (13-1, 1-1 Big East), Saturday 8:00 p.m.
Overshadowed by the four straight conference championships, two conference tournament titles and a national championship is what I consider to be the most impressive aspect of Villanova's five-year run of sustained excellence — the Wildcats haven't lost two games in a row since March of 2013.

Villanova will look to keep that streak intact Saturday night against Marquette at the Wells Fargo Center. The third-ranked Wildcats are coming off their first loss of the season last Saturday at Butler, a 101-93 setback in which the Bulldogs shot a blistering 68 percent from three-point range. Credit Butler for one of the finest shooting performances you'll see in college basketball all season. But there have been cracks in Villanova's defense the last few weeks. Cracks that Jay Wright has had a full week of practice to repair leading into Saturday's visit from Marquette. 

Make no mistake, Marquette will provide another stiff test for Villanova defensively. The Golden Eagles are coming off a 95-90 overtime win at Providence on Wednesday. Sophomore guard Markus Howard turned in a record-setting performance, scoring 52 points on 17 of 29 shooting from the field, including 11 of 19 from three-point territory. Howard's 52-point outburst set a new school record and matched the Big East record for most points in a game.

Howard is averaging a team-high 22.6 points per game but he has plenty of help in the Marquette backcourt, namely senior Andrew Rowsey, who has been good for 22.0 points per game this season. The Golden Eagles typically go as their sharp-shooting backcourt goes. Defending the perimeter will be priority No. 1 for Villanova. 

As good as Howard and Rowsey have been, Villanova's Jalen Brunson continues to be the best guard in the Big East. Brunson matched a career high with 31 points in the Butler loss and is in the midst of putting together one of the finest seasons in school history. He is averaging 18.9 points and shooting 59.5 percent from the field and a staggering 49.2 percent from three-point range with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.0 to 1.3. Put simply, Brunson is putting on a clinic on how to play the point guard position.   

With freshmen Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels sidelined with hand injuries, depth is becoming an issue for Villanova — the Wildcats' top six players accounted for 96 percent of the minutes played against Butler. But they should be rested following a seven-day layoff between games. 

Normally, I'd mention that Villanova will be tempted to look ahead to next Wednesday's showdown with fifth-ranked Xavier. But the fact that they're coming off their first loss of the season should keep the Wildcats honed in on Marquette on Saturday night. The Golden Eagles' backcourt will score its share of points, but look for Villanova to get back on track with a win. 

Villanova 84, Marquette 74

St. Bonaventure (11-3, 1-1 A-10) at St. Joseph's (6-7, 1-1 A-10), Saturday 8:00 p.m.
I feel like I’ve been writing about losing streaks a lot lately, so it’s refreshing to tell you Saint Joseph’s snapped a two-game skid with a thriller Wednesday night over VCU.  

The Hawks got some bad news earlier in the week when they learned Charlie Brown would be out at least three more weeks. The sophomore guard has missed every game so far this season, dealing with a broken wrist that’s sidelined him since October. And Phil Martelli has certainly missed the scoring of his former All-Rookie conference selection from last season. 

But in the overtime win over VCU, Martelli saw this year’s potential All-Rookie selection step up. Taylor Funk poured in 19 points and hit a three-pointer late in OT to help secure the win over the Rams. 

The Hawks have back-to-back home games to ring in the new year but will have their hands full if they want back-to-back wins. 

The Bonnies come into Hagan Arena with 11 wins, off to their best start to a season in 18 years. They were picked second in the conference, right behind Rhode Island, and it’s no surprise as to why Saint Bonaventure is one of the favorites to win the Atlantic 10.

They have a two-headed scoring attack in Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams. Mobley has started all but 14 games and averages 18.5 points a game. Adams missed the first month and a half of the season with an injury but is averaging 19.5 points in his eight games. The Bonnies actually just lost their first game with Adams in the starting lineup when Dayton beat them this week. I don’t think they’re going to lose a second in the same week. 

St. Bonaventure 77, Saint Joseph’s 70

Princeton (7-7, 0-0 Ivy) at Pennsylvania (9-5, 0-0 Ivy), Saturday 4:00 p.m.
There's no better way to tip off Ivy League play than another installment of the best rivalry in the long and storied history of a league often dubbed the "Ancient Eight." This game was initially scheduled for Friday night but was pushed back to Saturday afternoon due to unsafe travel conditions as a result of the snowstorm that hit the Delaware Valley on Thursday.

The last time Penn and Princeton met was the semifinals of last year's inaugural Ivy League Tournament — a 72-64 Princeton overtime win in which the Quakers gave the top-seeded Tigers everything they could handle. 

That loss marked the third time that Penn lost to Princeton last season. Needless to say, the Quakers will be eager for a little payback Saturday at the Palestra. Penn won't have much momentum heading into the game following last weekend's disappointing 13-point home loss to Toledo. Princeton, meanwhile, has won five of its last six games following a 2-6 start to the season. 

What these teams have done to this point in the season won't mean much once the ball goes up on Saturday. Ivy League play is a whole different animal, particularly when it comes to this rivalry. Penn has the motivation and home-court advantage on its side. Not to mention, the more talented roster. I expect the Quakers to pick up a long overdue win over Princeton. 

Pennsylvania 73, Princeton 68

Temple (7-7, 0-3 AAC) at Central Florida (11-4, 2-1 AAC), Sunday 12:00 p.m.
 Temple had a chance to snap a three-game losing streak in a big way Thursday night. But Cincinnati’s first-round NBA draft prospect had other ideas. 

Jacob Evans hit the game-winning jumper just inside the three-point line with less than a second to go and the 19th-ranked Bearcats escaped the Liacouras Center with a win. 

But it could’ve been a huge boost to a struggling Temple squad, which has now has dropped four straight. 

The Owls are now tasked with going on the road to face a UCF team that returns three starters from a 24-win squad last year. There is some good news Fran Dunphy can take away from the loss to the Bearcats. The Owls equaled their best defensive effort of the season, holding Cincinnati to just 55 points. That was against a Bearcats team that previously averaged 81 points per game.

But with the good, comes the bad. Temple only made one field goal in the last seven minutes of the game. The Owls saw a game in which they led for nearly the entire second half derail in front of their eyes. That’s not easy to come back from, for any team. 

UCF is entering its second year under Johnny Dawkins. The Knights reached the NIT semifinals last season after doubling its win total from the previous year. 

They are led by preseason first-team AAC selection B.J. Taylor at the point and boast the tallest player currently in college basketball, 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall on the inside.

But more important is the balance the Knights have on the floor. Both Taylor and Fall average 12 points and A.J. Davis is right behind with 11.5. And like the Owls, they’re stingy on defense, holding opponents to about 60 points a game. 

This weekend is a good time to head to Florida with the high temperatures here in Philadelphia in the teens. And it could be a good time for the Owls to regroup after a heartbreaker. They showed they have the ability to handle the better teams and talented players in the conference. Yes, they will have some trouble with Fall’s size. But if they play like they did against the Bearcats, they’ll come out of the sunshine state smiling. 

Temple 66, UCF 64

VCU (9-6, 1-1 A-10) at La Salle (7-8, 1-1 A-10), Saturday 2:00 p.m.
Following an overtime loss at Saint Joseph's on Wednesday, VCU wraps up a two-game swing through Philadelphia with Saturday's visit to La Salle. The Explorers are coming off a 12-point loss at Rhode Island on Wednesday, a game in which they were once again without the services of leading scorer B.J. Johnson.

Johnson has missed the last three games due to an ankle injury and is questionable for Saturday's matchup with VCU. His absence is understandably starting to catch up to the La Salle offense — the Explorers managed just 62 points and shot 43 percent from the field and 23 percent from three-point range against Rhode Island. 

Sophomore guard Isiah Deas was a bright spot in that loss with 17 points and seven rebounds. That performance came 12 days after Deas scored a career-high 24 points against Bucknell. His emergence gives the Explorers yet another scoring option on the perimeter. 

Obviously, Johnson's status will go a long way in determining the outcome on Saturday. I don't feel comfortable going with La Salle to win this game not knowing whether Johnson will play. But I'm putting my faith in the Explorers to pull out a narrow victory at home.     

La Salle 79, VCU 76

Charleston (11-3, 2-0 CAA) at Drexel (6-9, 0-2 CAA), Friday 7:00 p.m.
Drexel has the honors of welcoming in the CAA’s top team into their building for the Dragons' conference home opener. 

Drexel is coming off a disappointing defensive effort against UNC-Wilmington, a team that’s really struggled out of the gates. It wasn’t that long ago the Seahawks were the cream of the CAA crop. And by not that long ago, I mean last year. But their win over Drexel Tuesday was just UNCW’s fourth win of the season. 

So the Dragons need to regroup. Coming home to play at the DAC is a good start. But hosting College of Charleston isn’t the opponent to see first. 

The Cougars were picked to win the Colonial. They have won nine of their last 10 games and their three stars are three of the best scorers in the conference. Joe Chealey, Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley form the Cougars' triumvirate. Chealey leads the way with 18 a game and Riller and Brantley are on his heels, averaging over 16 points a game. Not only does Charleston score, they defend well by holding opponents to 65 points a game. 

Zach Spiker will get to see his team’s mettle in this one. And any learning experience gained against the Cougars should help Drexel in other conference games down the road. 

College of Charleston 80, Drexel 66

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
Amy Fadool: 8-10

Big East game of the year on tap for Villanova

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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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

AP Images

Misery continues for lowly Delaware


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.