Jay Wright

Big East game of the year on tap for Villanova

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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

Villanova slips as mammoth showdown looms

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Villanova slips as mammoth showdown looms

Jay Wright's Villanova squad is feeling something unfamiliar out on the Main Line on this cloudy Monday.

Yes, the stunning loss to St. John's this past Wednesday is still stinging. Yes, finally conquering the Butler demons is still sinking in. But those aren't it.

For the first time in five weeks, the Wildcats aren't sitting pretty atop the AP poll.

The loss to the Red Storm, which was previously winless in the Big East, pushed the 23-2 Wildcats down to No. 3 in this week's poll.

Virginia, despite a home loss to unranked Virginia Tech on Saturday night, moved up to No. 1 for the first time since 1982. Michigan State, on the strength of a win over then No. 3 Purdue, moved up to No. 2.

Fellow Big East foe Xavier checks in at No. 4 and Cincinnati moved up to No. 5.

Villanova hits the road to Providence on Wednesday night and then heads to Cincy to for a mammoth matchup with 23-3 Xavier on Saturday afternoon at 4:30. As of Monday morning, the Musketeers actually have an edge on the Wildcats for the top seed in the Big East tournament as Xavier has an 11-2 conference record compared to Villanova's 10-2 conference record. Xavier hosts Seton Hall on Wednesday night before the Wildcats come to town.

All the while, Villanova will remain shorthanded without redshirt junior Phil Booth and junior Eric Paschall. Booth is out several more weeks with a broken hand that has yet to be removed from a cast. Paschall is out indefinitely with a concussion and Wright did not sound optimistic at all after Saturday's win over Butler that Paschall would be ready to go at any point this week.

Both Booth, who averages 11.3 points per game, and Paschall, who averages 10.1 points per game, were in the lineup when the 'Cats ran the Musketeers out of the Wells Fargo Center with an 89-65 beatdown in January.

To make Saturday's game even more juicy, both Villanova and Xavier were pegged as top seeds by the NCAA Tournament selection committee in its first rankings of the season, which were released on Sunday. Villanova was the No. 2 overall seed and the top seed in the East Region while Xavier was the No. 3 overall seed and top seed in the Midwest Region.

So, needless to say, there's just a little bit riding on Saturday's showdown.

Eagles overshadowing what may be Jay Wright's best Villanova team

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Eagles overshadowing what may be Jay Wright's best Villanova team

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.

Seton Hall (17-5, 6-3 Big East) at No. 1 Villanova (21-1, 8-1), Sunday at Noon
SK: As I write this in Minneapolis while covering the Super Bowl, I can't help but think of the unique circumstances surrounding Villanova in Philadelphia right now.

The Eagles' run to the brink of the franchise's first-ever Lombardi trophy is the talk of the town, and rightfully so. The Eagles are king in Philadelphia and have been for quite some time. And when the Eagles are good — particularly Super Bowl good — they dominate the headlines and completely overshadow every other team in town.

Such is the case with Villanova right now. The Wildcats have been the top-ranked team in all of college basketball for the better part of the last two months. They have a 21-1 record and are on the fast track to a fifth straight Big East regular-season championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the last four seasons. Yet there is next to no buzz surrounding this team because of the Eagles.

Jay Wright has said many times over the years that he enjoys flying under the radar until Eagles season ends. The thinking being his team can quietly go about its business with minimal distractions until college basketball comes to the forefront in February and March.

But in my opinion, the whole dynamic is a tad unfortunate this season. I truly believe this is the best team Wright has had at Villanova. That's saying something considering he won a national championship in 2016 and went to a Final Four in 2009. 

But these Wildcats are a flat-out juggernaut, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. They torched a very good Creighton team 98-78 on Thursday, the 11th time in the last 12 games that Villanova has scored 80+ points. It was also the ninth time this season that the Wildcats have topped the 90-point mark. They've won eight straight games by an average of 17 points.

Villanova matched a school record with 19 three-point field goals against Creighton. They're now shooting a collective 42 percent from long range on the season, making an average of 12 threes per game. The numbers are staggering. Not only are the Wildcats the most offensively efficient team in the country, they're also playing at a level that hasn't been seen in college basketball a long time.

Jalen Brunson is a lock for first-team All-American honors and is on the short list of National Player of the Year candidates. Mikal Bridges is an NBA lottery pick who dominates on both ends of the floor. Donte DiVincenzo is a budding superstar. Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman form one of the best and most versatile frontcourt tandems in the country.

But not many people outside of hardcore Villanova fans are really talking about this team. That will change starting next week. 

Villanova hosts Seton Hall on Sunday. It will be a tough game against an opponent that traditionally plays the Wildcats very tough. But it's also a game that tips off 6½ before the Super Bowl. So don't expect to hear too much about the outcome, which is totally fair considering the circumstances.

But expect the Villanova bandwagon to start filling up shortly. Philadelphia is hoping beyond hope for a Super Bowl parade next week. Whether or not that happens, Villanova has a very good chance of having another parade of its own in a couple months.

Villanova 82, Seton Hall 74

Saint Joseph's (9-12, 4-5 A-10) at La Salle (9-13, 3-6), Saturday at 4 p.m.
AF: We'd be remiss if in this city college hoops column we didn't remember La Salle Hall of Famer Rasual Butler. The former Big 5 standout and 13-year NBA veteran died in a car accident, along with his wife earlier this week. All over the basketball world, not just in Philly, remembrances poured in, as Butler was clearly a beloved teammate and friend to many. 

The same day the news broke of Butler's death, La Salle faced Davidson.  And while this current Explorers team was probably too young to really appreciate Butler in his Gola glory, there's no doubt in my mind that the loss of someone so young and who had such an impact on their program weighed on the players' minds.

It was not the effort or outcome the Explorers wanted against Davidson. The Explorers were never really in the game against the Wildcats. Davidson is sitting in third in the conference standings and certainly making the most of the opportunities to move up before tournament time.  

Both the Explorers and the Hawks find themselves at the other end of the standings spectrum so it's two desperate teams meeting this weekend.

Both are coming off losses, though in different ways. While the Explorers never really challenged Davidson, the Hawks went down to the wire. A free throw with three seconds left sealed it for Saint Louis and marked the ninth single-digit loss for St. Joe's this season.

Not a Big 5 matchup for the standings, but still an important one for each team trying to salvage a season. La Salle won't put together back-to-back poor performances. 

La Salle 74, St. Joe's 70

Temple (12-10, 4-6 AAC) at Tulane (13-8, 4-5), Sunday at 3 p.m.
AF: The Owls shocked the Shockers Thursday night, and forgive the pun, but it really was a shocking win. Not because of Wichita State's being a ranked team, but in how Temple won the game. 

Temple seemingly had multiple chances to give the game right back to Wichita but managed to hold on. Shizz Alston's off-balance runner just seconds before the end of regulation propelled the game to overtime. And with about 10 seconds left in the extra session, the Owls were down two. But clutch scoring coupled with defense earned them the win. 

Yes, the students stormed the court. And they did so on the same night that Temple honored the 1988 Elite Eight team led by Mark Macon. So some might say that it's bad form when you clearly have a rich tradition of successful basketball. But as a badge-carrying member of the Court Storm police and yes, I really have a badge (thank you Taylor Shea and Jordan Strauss), I rule this as a legitimate court storm. 

This Owls team has suffered plenty of heartbreaking losses this season, as well as late-game collapses. Storm away students, celebrate. It's a great time to be in Philadelphia, and taking down the 16th-ranked team in the country deserved an on-court party.

Now Temple has to try to avoid the letdown against Tulane. I don't say that to disparage the Green Wave in any way, just that Temple has a bit of a history of coming up short after an emotional game. 

The Green Wave are coached by Mike Dunleavy, Sr. You'd be hard-pressed to find a coach with a more storied, successful and longer resume in the college ranks whose last name doesn't start with a K. And Dunleavy has Tulane trending in the right direction. They are not a good shooting team, particularly from beyond the arc. But they are finding ways to win. And scrappiness like that is hard to guard against.

This game is on Super Bowl Sunday. So you know I'm going with the birds. 

Temple 73, Tulane 68

Brown (9-8, 2-2 Ivy) at Penn (13-6, 3-0), Friday at 7 p.m.
AF: Penn is coming off a great Big 5 win over Saint Joseph's thanks in part to a double-double from A.J. Brodeur and team defense. 

The Quakers are actually the top team in the Ivy in three-point field goal defense, and they lead the league in rebounding at nearly 40 boards a game. As anyone will tell you, the more rebounds you get, naturally the more chances you have at scoring. 

But non-conference time is over for Penn and they put their undefeated Ivy record on the line this weekend beginning with Brown. It actually caps off a nine-game homestand, as the Quakers don't return to the Palestra after this weekend until Feb. 23. 

Brown just lost to the only other undefeated Ivy League team in Harvard last Saturday but did split the weekend with a buzzer-beating win over Dartmouth. The player to watch for in Friday night's game is Desmond Cambridge. The Bears' freshman is one of the reasons Brown leads the Ivy in scoring at just over 77 points per game.

Also this weekend, Penn welcomes Yale to the Palestra. The Bulldogs are right with the Bears in the Ivy standings at 2-2, having also just taken down Dartmouth and lost to Harvard like Brown last weekend. 

Penn is showing this season it can pull through scoring slumps, defensive miscues and some sloppiness during a game. They are finding ways to win and I think this weekend it's a clean sweep. Tuesday at Princeton will be one to watch, as will next weekend at Harvard. 

But once again, I'm riding with Philly teams this weekend. 

Penn 75, Brown 73 
Penn 68, Yale 63

Drexel (10-14, 2-7 CAA) at William and Mary (15-7, 8-3), Saturday at 4 p.m.
SK:
Drexel enters this matchup riding the momentum of a three-game winning streak thanks to a thrilling 76-74 win over James Madison on Thursday. The game wasn't decided until the final seconds when Austin Williams rejected a potential game-tying layup. 

Next up for the Dragons: A visit to William & Mary on Saturday afternoon. The Tribe is putting together a solid season as evidenced by their 15-7 record and 8-3 conference mark. William & Mary beat Drexel by 22 in Philadelphia back in early January.

This isn't the same Drexel team as the one William & Mary saw earlier this season. The Dragons are hitting their stride thanks to a number of key contributors emerging. They'll give William & Mary everything they can handle on Saturday, I just can't see them getting over the hump and securing a road win against a very good team.

William & Mary 79, Drexel 73

Prediction records
Sean Kane: 20-8
Amy Fadool: 13-16