Sean Kane

Fastbreak Friday: La Salle looks to upset No. 20 Northwestern

Fastbreak Friday: La Salle looks to upset No. 20 Northwestern

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.

Note: Temple played Auburn at 11 a.m. on Friday in a game that started too early to include in this week's edition of Fastbreak Friday.

Lafayette (0-2) at No. 5 Villanova (2-0), Friday, 8 p.m. at PPL Center in Allentown
SK: 
Villanova makes the trip up the Northeast Extension to take on Lafayette in what is technically a home game for the Wildcats in a building located in their opponent's backyard. This will be the second meeting between these teams in a little over 12 months. Villanova beat Lafayette, 88-48, in the 2016-17 season opener last November.

Jay Wright's team is coming off a lopsided 113-77 win over Nicholls State on Tuesday. It was the program's highest point total in a game since 2003. Wright had some complaints concerning the Wildcats' defense following the game, but there wasn't much not to like about their offensive execution. Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson combined for 60 points as Villanova shot 57 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point territory. 

Wright is utilizing a nine-man rotation that includes four freshmen. This is a deep and athletic Villanova team, but there will be some growing pains with so many first-year players taking on critical roles. Two members of that freshman class — starting center Omari Spellman and reserve guard Collin Gillespie — have had little trouble adjusting to the college game. Gillespie has been particularly impressive, averaging eight points and three assists in just over 18 minutes per game. The 2017 Philadelphia Catholic League Player of the Year is a steady ballhandler and passer with a smooth jump shot — he made four of 11 three-point attempts in the first two games of the season. 

Lafayette opened the season with losses at George Mason and NJIT. The 0-2 start comes on the heels of last season's 9-21 finish that saw the Leopards go 5-13 in Patriot League play. Lafayette is always well-coached under former Villanova star Fran O'Hanlon, but they don't have the talent to keep up with Villanova. Look for the Wildcats to roll on Friday night before things heat up next week at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.  

Villanova 85, Lafayette 60

La Salle (3-0) vs. No. 20 Northwestern (2-1), Saturday, 2:30 p.m. in Hall of Fame Classic in Connecticut
AF:
 The Explorers are 3-0 on the young season but it hasn’t been an easy undefeated start. Sure, Saint Peter’s wasn’t much of a test out of the gates, however, La Salle found some difficulty after that. It took two overtimes to finally put away Penn in the first Big 5 game of the year. Then Dr. John Giannini’s team saw a 20-point halftime lead evaporate at home Thursday night, letting South Alabama back into the game and winning by just eight points. 

B.J. Johnson has been as advertised for the Explorers. The senior transfer is everything they wanted and expected him to be: a scorer, a finisher and a leader. But he can’t do it by himself. La Salle needed all of his 30 points — 22 of them in the first half — to beat South Alabama. Guard-scoring hasn’t been an issue for La Salle in the past and that’s true once again. But getting some points in the paint and low block courtesy of a big man is something Giannini is really hoping Tony Washington can provide. 

I’ll tell you who could be a difference maker not only in this weekend’s game against Northwestern, but for the Explorers this season, Saul Phiri. He played 35 quality minutes Thursday night and was rewarded with a double-double, 14 points and 10 rebounds. On a team with plenty of guards, Phiri is still finding his way as a starter, but he could be a key contributor for La Salle to have a successful season. 

Funnily enough, Northwestern and La Salle shared an opponent already in Saint Peter’s. But unlike the Explorers, the Wildcats have already posted a loss this season, falling to Creighton this week. For more on that, check out our Fastbreak Friday video above. My co-author of this column will tell you all about the Big East.

Northwestern is ranked, though probably not for much longer if they play like they have in their first three games. They needed free throws late to hold off Loyola in their opener. 

If La Salle shoots well, there’s a chance they pull off the win in Connecticut. Northwestern’s defense got a workout with a very high-scoring Creighton team, so the game plan to beat the Wildcats has been laid out. But the Explorers will need all of their gunners and their big man to score well into double digits in this one. 

Northwestern 68, La Salle 64

Princeton (0-2) at Saint Joseph's (1-1), Saturday. 7 p.m.
SK:
You can forgive St. Joe's fans for thinking they can't catch a break. After losing their starting backcourt of Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble to season-ending injuries last season, the Hawks lost their best player Charlie Brown to a preseason wrist injury in October. Brown has yet to play this season. 

Then in the season-opener against Toledo, Kimble re-injured the same foot he fractured last season. Friday morning the school announced that Kimble is out for the remainder of the season as a result of the injury (see story). It's a devastating blow for the Hawks — Kimble is a team captain and terrific floor general.

Every team deals with injuries, but the Hawks have been downright ravaged by key players going down over the last 12 months. Phil Martelli's team has little choice but to soldier on. Without Brown and Kimble, St. Joe's pulled out a gritty 86-82 overtime win at UIC to even their season record at 1-1. James Demery was outstanding in the victory, scoring 25 points to go along with five rebounds and three steals. Freshman forward Taylor Funk added 22 points and nine rebounds. Funk has wasted no time making an impact -— averaging 19 points and 7.5 rebounds.  

The hope is Brown will be ready to rejoin the lineup in the near future. Even without Kimble, the Hawks will be a very difficult team to deal with once Brown returns. 

Princeton is a respectable 0-2 with losses to Butler and BYU. The Tigers are the defending Ivy League champs after winning 23 games a year ago. This is a very solid program that has proven they can play with anyone. I'd be surprised if Saturday's game isn't decided in the final minutes. But in the end, I'm banking on the Hawks figuring out a way to win in their home opener at Hagan Arena this season. 

Saint Joseph's 71, Princeton 69

PSU Brandywine (0-1) at Pennsylvania (1-2), Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
AF: 
The Quakers picked up their first win this week, dispatching Navy at the Palestra by 21 points. But it could’ve been a winning week if they would’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to take down La Salle and earn a Big 5 win in the process. 

Watching that game against La Salle, which I did on NBC Sports Philadelphia (shameless plug), you saw a spark in the Quakers that wasn’t present in the loss to Fairfield to start the season. Ryan Betley is definitely going to be the engine that makes this Penn squad go. But nice performances from Max Rothschild and Antonio Woods showed that there is some depth on this team.. 

But it was a cold night shooting, something that has plagued the Quakers in the past. Against the Explorers, Steve Donahue’s team was a woeful 34 percent from the field and just 25 percent from beyond the arc. Despite all of that, they were still in this game, forcing double overtime thanks to forcing La Salle into 17 turnovers. 

Defense and turning those miscues into points are going to be keys for Penn to beat teams this year and get back to the Ivy League Tournament. And if we learned anything from last year, this is a late-blooming team. So maybe if they figure out their scoring troubles early, they can set themselves up nicely for March. 

And this weekend’s opponent should help the Quakers find their shooting stroke. They welcome Penn State-Brandywine to the Palestra. It actually wraps up a brief home stand for Penn. The next eight games for the Quakers are on the road, not returning home until December 27th. But they will at least head out on the road on a winning note. 

Penn 77, PSU-Brandywine 63

Drexel (1-1) vs. Houston (1-0), Friday, 2:30 p.m. at Paradise Jam in Virginia
AF:
 Unfortunately, this game is not being held in its intended location. The Virgin Islands were ravaged by hurricanes this summer, so the Paradise Jam is taking place in Lynchburg, Virginia on the campus of Liberty University. As they say, the game must go on. On a humanitarian note, all tournament gate money will be donated to the U.S. Virgin Islands to help the recovery. So if you’re cruising around Appalachian, stop by and see some good basketball while helping a great cause. 

Drexel posted its first win earlier this week, beating Arcadia at the DAC. It was great to see the Dragons find their scoring groove, posting 95 points in the win. Also good to see, Tremaine Isabell. The transfer from Missouri tallied 15 of his 22 points in the second half and that’s something Zach Spiker has to like. And it should bode well for the Dragons as they get into the heart of their season. 

And speaking of scoring, Houston is no stranger to putting up points. In the Cougars' lone win of the season, they shot a blistering 69 percent in the first half and eventually put away McNeese State by nearly 30 points. Kelvin Sampson returns his top scorer a year ago in Rob Gray, who also led the American Athletic Conference with 20.6 points a game. To paraphrase Luke Walton who spoke about Joel Embiid, he’s gonna be a problem.  

Houston 85, Drexel 70

Prediction Records
Sean Kane: 2-1
Amy Fadool: 0-2

Fastbreak Friday: No. 6 Villanova ready for big things despite key losses

Fastbreak Friday: No. 6 Villanova ready for big things despite key losses

College basketball is back and so is Fastbreak Friday. Each Friday, NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and senior producer Sean Kane get you set for all the local college hoops action over the weekend. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season — we'll make predictions and keep track of our records throughout.

Columbia at No. 6 Villanova, Friday 8:30 p.m.
Kane:
Villanova opens up against Columbia at the Wells Fargo Center, where the Wildcats will play 12 games this season while the Pavilion undergoes renovations. This is the first time these teams have met since 2012 when Columbia beat Villanova convincingly. It was a loss that served as a turning point for the Wildcats' season that year and eventually became the springboard for this unprecedented run of success Jay Wright's program has enjoyed.  

The Wildcats lost quite a bit of firepower from last season's team that won 32 games, Big East regular season and tournament championships, and spent a good chunk of the year as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. First-team All-American Josh Hart is now playing for the Lakers, while Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds also moved on. But Wright has been through this before. During this run, he's had to replace the likes of Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston.

The faces change but the results remain — Villanova has a 129-17 record (.883 win percentage) over the last four seasons, including a ridiculous 63-9 mark in conference play. Over that span, the Wildcats have won four straight Big East regular-season titles, two Big East Tournament championships and a national championship.

There's no reason to think that high level of success won't continue this season (see season preview). Wright reloads with first-team preseason All-American Jalen Brunson leading a group that also features Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth, Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall. This Wildcats team will be significantly deeper than last year when the rotation was whittled down to six or seven players at times. Villanova figures to go nine-deep this year, with a handful of starting-caliber players coming off the bench.

Booth and Spellman are the keys. If Booth can stay healthy (he played just three games last season because of a knee injury) he gives the Wildcats a dynamic scoring option on the perimeter. Spellman, meanwhile, has the potential the be the best post player Wright has coached at Villanova. His offensive skills are NBA-caliber and he spent the last year getting himself in terrific shape after he was ruled academically ineligible prior to last season.

Expect more of the same from Villanova over the course of the next five months. The Wildcats will get the ball rolling with an easy win over Columbia.

Villanova 82, Columbia 59

Saint Joseph's at Toledo, Saturday 7 p.m.
Fadool:
 The Hawks open the season with realistic expectations of a return trip to the NCAA Tournament (see season preview). It could’ve been back-to-back years for Saint Joseph’s, if not for the injury bug that plagued the team throughout the season, but especially late. 

The Hawks lost four players to season-ending injuries. So this year, it probably comes as little surprise to Hawks fans that they begin the year with another key loss to the starting lineup. As a freshman, Charlie Brown earned All-Atlantic 10 honors thanks to his nearly 13 points and five rebounds per game. He played in every game for Phil Martelli, starting all but one of the Hawks' 31 games. But Brown begins the season on the shelf after undergoing surgery in late October to repair a wrist fracture. He’s expected to miss several weeks. If the Hawks can get through the first month or so of the season relatively unscathed, they should be set up nicely for conference play at the very end of the year, leading into 2018. But that’s no small feat with games against Princeton, Villanova and Temple all coming in the next four weeks. 

The Hawks open up on the road against Toledo, a middle of the pack MAC team. The good news is that the Rockets lost three of their starters from last season. The somewhat bad news is that they are a scoring machine, especially from beyond the arc; and they only added to that with Tre’Shaun Fletcher, a transfer from Colorado. Fletcher shot an impressive 40 percent from three in Pac-12 play two seasons ago and is now eligible for Toledo after sitting out a year. 

At this week’s Coaches vs. Cancer preseason luncheon, Coach Martelli said that defense isn’t as important as people think, cracking the joke that no championship has ever been won 2-0. But the other five city coaches in attendance all countered that notion, most notably Jay Wright, who pointed out that Martelli’s teams are always some of the best defensive teams in the country. Wright talked about the number of defensive rebounds the Hawks average and how St. Joe's also is a leader when it comes to not committing fouls.

That stingy and sound defense is going to help carry the Hawks through some tough games early on without one of their star players.

Saint Joseph’s 71, Toledo 68

Pennsylvania at Fairfield, Saturday 1 p.m.
Kane:
I'm bullish on this Penn team. Bullish with a capital "B". They showed what they're capable of towards the tail end of last season when they made a surprising run to the Ivy League tournament and nearly knocked off top-seeded Princeton in the semifinals. I'll get my first prediction of the season out of the way — the Quakers will win the Ivy League this season and return to the NCAA Tournament. 

Penn will go as far as sophomore big man A.J. Brodeur takes them. I mean this as a compliment — Brodeur has no business playing in the Ivy League. He's the type of player who would more than hold his own in the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, or any other power conference. Brodeur led the team in scoring and rebounding last season as a freshman while setting a new program record for blocked shots in a season. He's poised to dominate the Ivy League as a sophomore.

Then there's Ryan Betley, who was the key to the Quakers' late-season surge a year ago. Betley missed the first month of his freshman season with a broken hand but returned to show why head coach Steve Donahue is so high on him. Betley is a fierce competitor with perimeter scoring skills to match. Factor in sharpshooter Jackson Donahue and the return of Antonio Woods, and this Penn team has the look of a 20-win team.

Look for the Quakers to start the season with a win at Fairfield on Saturday. 

Pennsylvania 71, Fairfield 60

St. Peter's at La Salle, Saturday 3 p.m.
Kane:
It's a fresh start for La Salle, a team that endured its share of ups and downs last season. The Explorers ended up with a 15-15 record and 9-9 mark in A-10 play. It was the type of mediocre season than Dr. John Giannini plans to avoid this time around. 

Giannini has the talent on his roster to finish in the top half of the league standings. B.J. Johnson, Pookie Powell and Amar Stukes are a talented and experienced trio that should be able to hold their own against anyone in the A-10. The supporting cast will ultimately tell the story of this La Salle season — who steps up to make the difference in those close games the Explorers generally tend to find themselves in. 

La Salle opens up with St. Peter's, a team that won 23 games and a CIT title last season. One of the Peacocks' key players is Nnamdi Onechionyia, the brother of Temple senior Obi Onechionyia. The Onechionyia connection aside, this is a game La Salle should win. Expect the Explorers to start the season on a winning note Saturday afternoon.

La Salle 77, St. Peter's 68

Bowling Green at Drexel, Friday 7 p.m.
Fadool:
The Dragons enter this season in Year 2 with Zach Spiker at the helm and I expect improvement. And not just because they failed to reach the double-digit win total last year with a 9-23 record. But Spiker can win. He won at his previous stop, Army, and it is not an easy task to win games at a service academy. But Spiker did and was named 2013 Patriot League Coach of the year.  

One of the things working in Spiker’s and Drexel’s favor: Kurk Lee. Last season, he broke Drexel’s freshman scoring record with 478 points while posting top- CAA numbers in points, steals and assists. Lee will be the Dragons’ leading scorer and I expect Sammy Mojica to be right behind. The senior, who’s posted quality minutes since his freshman year, rounds out a good senior core with Miles Overton and Austin Williams. 

Drexel opens at home Saturday and that’s a good thing because Spiker’s squad was not a road warrior last season, going 4-14 away from the DAC. But they welcome in a Bowling Green team who also had a tough time on the road last year, winning only three away games. 

Drexel 68, Bowling Green 61

10 most important Big 5 players this season

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USA Today Images

10 most important Big 5 players this season

The college basketball season starts Friday and there is no shortage of storylines in the Big 5. 

Villanova is once again the team to beat in the Big East and a legitimate national championship contender.

Saint Joseph's should be a big factor in the Atlantic 10 race if the Hawks can avoid the injury bug, something they failed to do last season and are struggling with already this year.

Temple and La Salle aim to rebound from lackluster seasons, while Penn has the talent to return to the top of the Ivy League standings.

Coaches tend to get the bulk of the attention in college basketball but it's the players who ultimately decide the outcome of a season. Here is a list of 10 players to watch in the Big 5 — not necessarily the best players in the city, but guys who will have the biggest impact in determining their team's level of success this winter.

1. Jalen Brunson (junior guard, Villanova)
The first name on this list just so happens to be the best player in the city. Brunson enters his junior year at Villanova as a first team preseason All-American, preseason Big East Player of the Year, and arguably the best point guard in the country. He's on track to graduate early in the spring so chances are this will be his final season with the Wildcats. The NBA awaits for Brunson, who has lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him when he arrived at Villanova three years ago. He has the rare ability to take over a game single-handedly while also elevating the play of his teammates. Brunson will be counted on for more scoring and an increased leadership role this season — things that come naturally for a player who is poised to put together one of the finest seasons in school history.

2. Charlie Brown (sophomore forward, Saint Joseph's)
As Brown goes, so goes St. Joe's. His sophomore year got off to an unfortunate start — a preseason wrist injury put his status at the beginning of the season in question. But when he's healthy, Brown is a flat out difference-maker — a silky smooth wing who should take a sizable leap during his second season on Hawk Hill. That's saying something considering how good Brown was as a freshman. He is an NBA-level talent who will be a force in the Atlantic 10, a player capable of carrying St. Joe's back to the NCAA Tournament. 

3. AJ Brodeur (sophomore forward, Penn)
Brodeur has a chance to be not only one of the best players ever to play at Penn but also one of the best players in Ivy League history as well. If his freshman season was any indication, big things are in store over the next three years. He led the Quakers in scoring and rebounding as a freshman and set a program record with 66 blocked shots. You don't typically see a player as talented as Brodeur in the Ivy League. He could play and succeed in any conference. In fact, he turned down offers from Notre Dame and Boston College coming out of high school. Brodeur is the type of player who should lead Penn to accomplishments that were routine for the Quakers not too long ago — Ivy League championships and trips to the NCAA Tournament. 

4. Josh Brown (senior guard, Temple)
Last season was beyond frustrating for Brown, who tore his Achilles tendon in May 2016 and worked his way back to action for a handful of games before being shut down for the remainder of the season. Temple struggled without its floor general — Brown is the type of point guard who keeps the Owls organized on both ends of the floor. He now has a clean bill of health and is aiming to finish out his career on North Broad Street on a winning note. Temple has the talent to compete for an AAC title. It will be up to Brown to lead them in that direction.

5. Donte DiVincenzo (sophomore guard, Villanova)
DiVincenzo is my choice for Big 5 breakout player of the year if there was such an award. His coach, Jay Wright, compared him to Josh Hart last season, which qualifies as high praise. With Hart now in the NBA, DiVincenzo has the opportunity to develop into one of the best players in all of college basketball. He certainly has the talent. He's a tremendous athlete with a well-rounded offensive skill set and the potential to be a lockdown perimeter defender. He was arguably Villanova's best player in the NCAA Tournament last year. Expect that upward trajectory to carry over into his sophomore season. 

6. B.J. Johnson (senior guard, La Salle)
Johnson was as good as advertised in his first season at La Salle after transferring from Syracuse, averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds as a junior. He'll look to continue that production in his final collegiate season, but more importantly he'll try to pile up more wins for the Explorers following last season's 15-15 finish that included a 9-9 mark in A-10 play. La Salle has the requisite offensive firepower with Johnson, Pookie Powell and Amar Stukes leading the way. But it's on Johnson to lead them in a way that translates into more victories.    

7. Omari Spellman (freshman forward, Villanova)
Spellman makes his much anticipated Villanova debut after being ruled academically ineligible last season. That ruling hurt the Wildcats on the floor last year but could end up being a blessing in disguise in terms of Spellman's long-term development. He used the last 12 months to shed 40 pounds while familiarizing himself with how the Villanova program operates. He should be very comfortable stepping into a critical role for the Wildcats this season. Spellman has the ability to be one of the best post players to ever play for Jay Wright. He is ultra talented on the low block, able to shoot the three-pointer and will serve as the backbone of the Wildcats' interior defense. The combination of Spellman inside and Villanova's arsenal of perimeter weapons spells trouble for opponents this season. 

8. Shavar Newkirk (senior guard, Saint Joseph's)
Newkirk went down with a season-ending knee injury last year after just 12 games. He was averaging more than 20 points at the time of the injury and the Hawks were never able to recover from his absence. They were 7-5 at the time of Newkirk's injury then proceeded to go 4-15 without him. Newkirk still isn't 100 percent healthy — rehabbing a torn ACL tends to take more than a calendar year. But he should be back in the Hawks' lineup sooner rather than later, possibly as early as Saturday's season-opener against Toledo. Expect him to slowly regain his confidence and explosiveness and eventually return to form as one of the top lead guards in the Atlantic 10. 

9. Ryan Betley (sophomore guard, Penn)
A broken hand forced Betley to miss the first month of his freshman year but by the time last season ended he had established himself as Penn's second-best player behind Brodeur. Betley finished the season by scoring in double figures in eight straight games, averaging just under 18 points during that span. He has a killer instinct that his coach, Steve Donahue, values in his players. Combine that with his skills on the perimeter and Betley should be in contention for First Team All-Ivy honors.  

10. Obi Enechionyia (senior forward, Temple)
No player is more critical to Temple's success than Enechionyia, who is extremely talented but hasn't been able to put it all together to this point in his career. He'll get one last shot this year at developing into the consistent offensive force the Owls need him to be. There aren't many players in college basketball with Enechionyia's skill set — he's 6-foot-10 with the ability to play on the perimeter and knock down threes. But after a promising start to his junior season, he slumped during the critical months of January and February. Consistency is the key for Enechionyia for his final season in a Temple uniform. 

Honorable Mention
Mikal Bridges, Pookie Powell, Shizz Alston, Lamarr Kimble, Phil Booth, Antonio Woods, Eric Paschall, Amar Stukes