Hey look, college basketball returns tonight! And after a lean season in which only Villanova was a player on the national stage, Philly hoops looks poised to make a comeback in 2017-18.
Here are six predictions for the City Six:
Jalen Brunson will be one of the best players in the nation
It’s hard to get a good read on Villanova — a team that, despite losing star players like Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, are still expected to be a national title contender.
A lot has to go right for ’Nova to remain a 30-win squad but one thing that won’t be much of a question mark is Jalen Brunson.
A talented guard who Jay Wright called a “natural-born leader,” Brunson seems more than ready to run the team and have a huge season. And don’t be surprised if he’s a finalist for the Wooden Award, just as Hart was a season ago.
Three Big 5 teams will make the NCAA Tournament
Even if Villanova doesn’t continue its streak of Big East titles, the Wildcats will almost certainly make the NCAA Tournament for the 14th time in 15 years. A more pressing question is if anyone in the city will join them after ’Nova was the only team to make the 2017 Dance.
I think that if St. Joe’s can stay healthy, the Hawks have a good shot to get there and maybe even win the Atlantic 10, too. And what are the odds that Fran Dunphy misses the NCAA tourney for a second straight season, considering the last time that happened was in 1997 and 1998?
Look for both the Hawks and Temple to hear their names called on Selection Sunday after staying around the bubble all season. And if one of them doesn’t qualify, there’s always a chance that Penn wins the four-team Ivy League Tournament at the Palestra to book its ticket.
Villanova’s Big 5 streak will end
One of the more impressive feats in the city is Villanova’s 18-game Big 5 winning streak — which I predict will end this season.
Yes, Villanova will be favored in all of its Big 5 games. But without the chance to play in the Pavilion this season due to renovations of the Wildcats' on-campus home and having to play both St. Joe’s and Temple on the road in their biggest rivalry games, a Wildcats team without any seniors may get tripped up.
And if that happens, it could be a season-defining win for the Hawks and/or Owls.
B.J. Johnson will win the city’s scoring crown
Shortly after the 2016-17 season, La Salle’s B.J. Johnson declared for the NBA Draft but did not hire an agent. That last part proved to be quite a good thing for La Salle fans as Johnson opted to return for his senior season.
And the Syracuse transfer is poised for a big one after averaging 17.6 points per game in his first season at his dad’s alma mater last year.
With high-scoring swingman Jordan Price now gone, Johnson should do even more damage on the offensive end this season and perhaps average more than 20 points per game. It’s hard to imagine any player in the city scoring more than that unless St. Joe’s guard Shavar Newkirk completely recovers from a torn ACL or Brunson pumps up his scoring average.
The bigger issue for La Salle, as always, will be chemistry and defense as the Explorers aim to be a serious player in the A-10.
Omari Spellman will be the city’s breakout star
Not going out on too much of a limb with this one but Spellman will be the best newcomer in the city.
The Villanova forward has all the tools with Jay Wright saying he’s never coached a “big guy that good that early in his career.” He’ll likely start right away and get ample opportunity to shine down low with ’Nova possibly employing a four-guard lineup. And, perhaps most valuably, sitting out last season allowed him to learn the game and get used to college basketball.
If Spellman does have competition in this category, it might just be from freshman teammate Collin Gillespie, a sharpshooting guard out of Archbishop Wood.
AJ Brodeur and Kurk Lee will be among the city’s best players
Over in University City, Steve Donahue and Zach Spiker are still trying to rebuild the Penn and Drexel programs. And they each have two (very different) sophomore players to build around in Kurk Lee, a speedy, diminutive guard at Drexel, and AJ Brodeur, a skilled post player at Penn.
Brodeur was a huge bright spot for Penn last season, leading them to two signature non-conference wins by dropping 35 on La Salle and managing to score a few very nice baskets down low on UCF’s 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall. And Lee averaged 15 points per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range and electrifying the DAC crowds by weaving through bigger bodies in the lane and burying some acrobatic shots.
The best part: each have three seasons left.