Sean Kane

Villanova's X-factors, chances at history in 2019 NCAA Tournament

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Villanova's X-factors, chances at history in 2019 NCAA Tournament

The NCAA Tournament tips off Tuesday night with the start of the First Four in Dayton. There are a couple prominent Big 5 storylines as college basketball takes center stage for the next three weeks. Namely, Villanova is trying to do something that hasn't been done in 44 years: win three national championships in the span of four years.

Then there's Temple's Fran Dunphy coaching in his 17th and final NCAA Tournament before stepping down at the end of the season.

Here's a breakdown of what lies ahead for the local teams.

Can Villanova make history?

The Wildcats are back in the NCAA Tournament for the 14th time in the last 15 years under Jay Wright. They arrive with plenty of momentum after winning their third straight Big East Tournament last week at Madison Square Garden. Villanova is riding a ridiculous wave of postseason success — since the 2016 season, the Wildcats have a 26-2 record in Big East and NCAA Tournament competition.

Now they set out to win a third national championship in the last four years. That hasn't been done since the UCLA dynasty in the mid-1970s.

Villanova is flying under the radar compared to previous years in terms of contending for a national title. The Wildcats are the 6-seed in the South Region and will play St. Mary's on Thursday night in Hartford, CT. St. Mary's comes into play with a 22-11 record after a shocking win over then-No. 1 Gonzaga in the WCC championship game last week.

Villanova is battle-tested and has one of the premiere coaches in the country. The Wildcats are led by two terrific seniors in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, two guys with tons of NCAA Tournament experience. Those are the positives.

The biggest negative? Villanova's lack of depth. Wright's rotation essentially shrunk to six players during the Big East Tournament.

Sophomore Jermaine Samuels and freshman Saddiq Bey are the X-factors. Both Samuels and Bey have had their moments this season and were critical to Villanova's success last week. If Samuels and Bey can step up to complement Booth and Paschall, the Wildcats will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.

Fran Dunphy's last stand

Dunphy has pretty much done it all during a remarkable career. A standout player at La Salle, he received a master's degree from Villanova and has served as the head coach at both Penn and Temple. His "Mr. Big 5" nickname is well deserved.

He had tremendous success during his 17 seasons at Penn, winning nine Ivy League titles and going to nine NCAA Tournaments. Dunphy carried that success over to Temple, winning three straight Atlantic 10 Tournaments from 2008 to 2010. He has led the Owls to eight NCAA Tournaments during his 13 seasons as head coach.

The one thing missing from Dunphy's resume is success on the sport's biggest stage. He has a 3-16 career record in the NCAA Tournament. Dunphy's Owls will try to improve that record on Tuesday night against a Belmont team that won 26 games this season.

Dunphy is a great coach, terrific man and has been a wonderful ambassador for college basketball. It would be a great story if Temple sends him out with a nice run in this NCAA Tournament.

Phil Martelli out as St. Joe's head coach after 24 years

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Phil Martelli out as St. Joe's head coach after 24 years

It's the end of an era on Hawk Hill. After 24 seasons, Phil Martelli is out as the men's basketball coach at St. Joseph's University. 

The Hawks finished the 2018-19 season with a 14-19 record, losing in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals last Friday in Brooklyn.

"Following a comprehensive review of the men's basketball program, I have decided to make a change in the leadership of the program. The decision was not an easy one, but I believe it is the right one - for both the men's basketball program and the institution as a whole," St. Joseph's athletics director Jill Bodensteiner said in a statement Tuesday morning.

Martelli took over as St. Joseph's head coach in 1995. He compiled a 444-328 record in 24 seasons and won six A-10 regular season championships, three A-10 Tournament titles and guided the Hawks to seven NCAA Tournament appearances. He is the winningest coach at a school known for producing coaching legends such as Jack Ramsey and Jim Lynam. However the St. Joseph's program slipped in recent years. Following a 28-win season in 2016, the Hawks had a 41-55 record over the last three years. 

Martelli led St. Joseph's on a tremendous five-year run from 2000-05, winning five straight A-10 regular season championships and appearing in three NCAA Tournaments over that span.  The 2004 season was the high point. Led by national player of the year Jameer Nelson, the Hawks completed a perfect 27-0 regular season and advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to Oklahoma State in the final seconds. Martelli was named the national coach of the year following that 2004 season. But the Hawks have won just one NCAA Tournament game since 2004.

"Basketball is an important strategic asset for the University," said Bodensteiner in her statement. "We have a storied history, and we move forward with the desire and intent to build upon that history, develop a sustained and consistent culture of excellence, and compete for NCAA tournament appearances and conference championships every year." Martelli's dismissal comes during a changing of the guard across the Big 5. Temple's Fran Dunphy will step down at the end of this season following 30 years as a head coach at Temple and Penn. Ashley Howard just completed his first season at La Salle.

Villanova's Big East title hopes on the line tonight against Marquette

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Villanova's Big East title hopes on the line tonight against Marquette

Villanova is in uncharted territory. The Wildcats have lost three games in a row for the first time in six years. They've plummeted out of the Top 25 rankings and have seen their potential NCAA Tournament seeding take a massive hit. 

Not many people outside the Villanova program feel sorry for Jay Wright and company, given the Wildcats' historic run of success over the last five years. 

To make matters worse, the road ahead doesn't get any easier Wednesday night when 10th-ranked Marquette visits the Finneran Pavilion looking to complete a season sweep of Villanova and essentially lock up the Big East regular-season title. 

Here are the major storylines entering the biggest game of the season for both teams:

Villanova scuffling

The Wildcats' three-game losing streak has come entirely on the road. It began with a blown 19-point lead against St. John's on Feb. 17. Three days later, Villanova was thoroughly outplayed by a mediocre Georgetown team. Then there was last Sunday's 12-point loss at Xavier when the Wildcats went more than nine minutes in the second half without scoring. 

Villanova looks gassed. They hardly resemble the team that won 11 straight games from late December to early Februrary. Wright has largely relied on a seven-man rotation with the occasional appearance by freshman Jahvon Quinerly. The Wildcats won a lot of games with that pared down rotation but it seems to have caught up with them now. Villanova's two best players — seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall — are averaging 36 and 37 minutes per game, respectively, in Big East competition. Junior Collin Gillespie also averages well over 30 minutes per game in conference play. 

To his credit, Wright has tried to adjust. He's getting Booth, Paschall and Gillespie more rest early in games. But that strategy hasn't had the desired impact. Booth and Gillespie are really struggling with their outside shots. Booth is shooting just 20 percent from three-point territory in the last seven games, while Gillespie has converted just 19 percent of his three-point attempts in the last five games.  

Villanova thrives when they are making shots. When their best shooters are struggling to this extent, it can get ugly. 

Senior night

There should be plenty of electricity in the Finneran Pavilion on Wednesday night. Villanova will honor its senior class prior to the last on-campus home game of the season. Booth and Paschall are the headliners  they will go down as two of the most accomplished players in program history. Both are two-time national champions who have been instrumental to the Wildcats' overwhelming recent success. 

Booth has played 140 career games. Villanova has a 122-18 record in those 140 games. He scored a team-high 20 points as a sophomore in the 2016 National Championship Game and was a driving force on the 2018 championship team, generally considered the best team in school history. 

Paschall has improved dramatically in his four years at Villanova after transferring from Fordham. He's having an outstanding senior season and has played his way onto the margins of being a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA draft. 

Emotions will be running high as Wright honors Booth, Paschall and the rest of the Villanova seniors. The Wildcats just have to channel that emotion properly to pull of a signature victory. 

Don't call it an upset

Despite riding a three-game losing streak and facing the top team in the Big East, Villanova is listed as a five-point favorite against Marquette. The Golden Eagles have won 16 of their last 17 games, including a 66-65 decision over Villanova earlier this month. They are led by the soon-to-be Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard, who averages more than 25 points per game and scored 38 points in that win over Villanova.  

Everything points to the Wildcats' struggles continuing. Everything except for the time-tested 'wounded animal' theory. It's one of the best adages in sports — nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal. And Villanova certainly fits the bill at the moment, coming off those three straight ugly losses and sitting a game and a half behind Marquette in the Big East standings with three games left in the regular season. 

A wounded animal comes out in attack mode when confronted. Expect to see that from Villanova on Wednesday night.