NCAA

5 biggest Big 5 questions that need to be answered

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5 biggest Big 5 questions that need to be answered

College basketball is officially back. Four of the city's Big 5 teams begin their seasons tonight. La Salle is the lone exception — the Explorers open up on Saturday against Iona. With a new season set to tip-off, here is a look at the five biggest questions that need to be answered in the Big 5. 

Will Villanova's youth movement pay dividends?

Villanova has established itself as one of the premiere programs in college basketball thanks to a steady diet of veteran leadership. The Wildcats averaged 32 wins over the last six seasons and won national championships in 2016 and 2018 because they constantly had a wealth of experienced upperclassmen leading the way.

That won't be the case this season. There won't be a single senior in Jay Wright's rotation. Villanova's junior class of Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree will be counted on to provide guidance for the youngest roster the Wildcats have fielded in quite some time.

Sophomore Saddiq Bey might be Villanova's best all-around player and is poised for a breakout season. Fellow second-year players Cole Swider and Brandon Slater will also be asked to play significant minutes.

But this team will rely on freshmen far more than most Villanova teams under Wright.

Forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was the preseason Big East Freshman of the year and lived up to the billing during the Wildcats' exhibition schedule. Guard Justin Moore will be a big part of the backcourt. Bryan Antoine is the most highly-touted player in Villanova's freshman class. But Antoine is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and likely won't see game action until mid to late December.

With the departures of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall last season, this truly feels like the start of a new era at Villanova. The mainstays of the championship era have all moved on and it will be fascinating to watch this current group write its own chapter.

Is this Steve Donahue's best team at Penn?

For the first time in six years, Villanova isn't the reigning Big 5 champion. That distinction belongs to the Penn Quakers, who snapped Villanova's 25-game Big 5 winning streak last season on the way to a perfect 4-0 record against their city rivals.

Steve Donahue will work with the most talented roster he's had at his disposal in five years as Penn's head coach. Not only are the Quakers talented, they are also deep, versatile and experienced. That tends to be a winning formula in college basketball.

Senior big man A.J. Brodeur is the frontrunner for Big 5 Player of the Year honors. He led Penn in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks as a junior. Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman join Brodeur to headline the Quakers' dynamic senior class. Expect Betley to provide a significant boost after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Penn's first game last year.

Penn was picked to finish second behind Harvard in the preseason Ivy League poll. Look for the Quakers to battle with the Crimson all season for the regular season championship and accompanying top seed in the Ivy League Tournament.

How will the new coaches fare?

Aaron McKie and Billy Lange are tasked with replacing a pair of Big 5 legends. McKie takes over for Fran Dunphy at Temple, while Lange replaces Phil Martelli at Saint Joseph's. Dunphy and Martelli were mainstays on the local college basketball scene for the last quarter-century. They combined for more than 1,000 career wins and 24 trips to the NCAA Tournament.

McKie is better positioned than Lange for immediate success. He inherits a team that won 23 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season. The Owls will lean heavily on senior guard Quenton Rose, who averaged 16.5 points last year. Junior Nate Pierre-Louis earned Most Improved Player honors in both the AAC and Big 5 last season and will be one of the top two-way guards in the city.

Temple was picked to finish 7th in the AAC. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the Owls exceed those expectations in McKie's first season as a head coach.

Lange, meanwhile, faces a far more daunting rebuilding project on Hawk Hill. St. Joe's lost its top four scorers from last season and was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Atlantic 10.

Transfer Ryan Daly will be the focal point of the Hawks' offense. Daly sat out last season after transferring from Delaware, where he averaged 17.5 points during the 2017-18 season. Junior forward Taylor Funk will also do some heavy lifting on the offensive end after an inconsistent sophomore year.

Wins may not be plentiful early on as Lange builds the foundation for his program.

Will La Salle take a step forward in Howard's 2nd season?

This time last year, it was Ashley Howard making his Big 5 head coaching debut. La Salle finished with a 10-21 record in Howard's first year but improved as the season progressed, going 7-7 in the final 14 games. Now the question becomes: Will that improvement carry over into Howard's second season leading the Explorers?

Howard has some nice pieces to work with. Senior Isiah Deas and junior David Beatty will provide scoring punch in the backcourt, while forward Ed Croswell is expected to make a significant leap as a sophomore.

Freshmen guards Christian Ray and Sherif Kenney will play big minutes in their first seasons in La Salle uniforms, as will Clemson transfer Scott Spencer.

The Explorers were picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic 10. Surpassing that prediction would be a good indication of the La Salle program moving in the right direction under its second-year head coach.

Who will make the NCAA Tournament?

Villanova seems like a safe bet to reach the NCAA Tournament for the 15th time in the last 16 years. The Wildcats' youth will likely experience some growing pains early in the season but this is a talented enough team to contend for another regular season championship in a much-improved Big East.

Penn and Temple each have legitimate chances to get into the NCAA Tournament. Both teams have the requisite amount of talent and experience.

Three teams hearing their names called on Selection Sunday would represent a banner year for the Big 5.

Jay Wright talks Saddiq Bey, missing March Madness, Phillies

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Jay Wright talks Saddiq Bey, missing March Madness, Phillies

It's been 12 days since Villanova's season ended abruptly due to the coronavirus crisis. Jay Wright held a video conference on Wednesday to discuss a number of topics. 

Here are the major takeaways from Wright's session with the media.  

This March is different

Villanova missed out on opportunities to win a fourth straight Big East Tournament and participate in the NCAA Tournament for the 15th time in the last 16 years. The Wildcats won eight of their final nine games to clinch a share of the Big East regular season title. Not having a chance to shine in the postseason stings. 

"Missing the NCAA Tournament is obviously tough for our guys," Wright said. "We felt like we were playing great basketball, coming on strong. I always say we want to play our best basketball at the end of the year, and I think we were doing that. It is what it is, our guys get it. 

"It's a great example of our mantra 'attitude'. We try to teach our guys that you don't have control over what happens in life. What you do have control of is your response to what happens to you. 

"I don't know if there's even been a March where I wasn't either in (the NCAA Tournament), watching it or recruiting during it. I'm testing myself on what else is there in me? Being a better father, being a better husband. Spending more time with the kids, watching more movies, reading more, trying to be more worldly. I'm not very good at it but I'm trying."

Will Saddiq Bey leave for the NBA? 

Arguably the biggest question concerning Wright's team heading into the offseason is will Saddiq Bey leave for the NBA or will he return for his junior season at Villanova? Wright mentioned that Bey was especially disappointed when this season was cut short. He realizes that he has a big decision to make on his future. Wright discussed Bey's future plans as well as freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who is also considered an NBA prospect. 

"The NBA is still on hold," Wright said. "They don't have a plan yet for what they're going to do with the pre-draft process or the draft yet. Saddiq and Jeremiah probably both will go through that process when we find out what it is. They're waiting on us for information, should they start working out? We're trying to get them as much information as possible. 

"If we were in a normal timeline, they would both go through the process. As we learn what the NBA is going to do there are so many possibilities. Just to take it to an extreme, there's a possibility they might not have a pre-draft process and just have the draft with no workouts, using the evaluations they had during the season. 

"We're communicating with both of them daily. Saddiq is having a tough time trying to find a place to work out in [his hometown] Washington D.C. He just got a gym to get into so he can shoot, he can't find a gym to get into to lift. Jeremiah is trying to find a place around here to get into to shoot."

2020 Summer Olympics postponed

Wright was supposed to spend a portion of his summer as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team in Tokyo. But with this week's announcement that the Olympics are postponed, his plans have changed. 

"It's the right decision," Wright said. "I feel bad for all of those athletes that it's once in a lifetime experience. I really feel bad for them. For basketball guys it's not as difficult. I talked with [U.S. head coach Greg Popovich] yesterday. It's postponed, obviously not cancelled, postponed until some time next spring or summer. There's a lot of questions there. They could do it late spring, when you might not have NBA players. If they did it in the summer maybe you do have NBA players. We have to wait for the IOC to make those decisions. 

"For us personally (at Villanova), it's kind of crazy because we thought we came up with this great plan. I was going to have to leave our offseason program for the Olympics. We had a plan to work around that, and now it doesn't matter. We'll be here in June and July. Now we don't even know if the players will be here. We worked so hard to put this plan in place for me being away and now it doesn't even matter."

Phillies season on hold

A Bucks County native, Wright is a huge Philadelphia sports fan. He had Phillies season tickets as a kid and is a regular at Citizens Bank Park during the summer months. Like all Phillies fans, he's disappointed the baseball season isn't starting this week.

"The end of the basketball season was always sobering," Wright said. "But what always saved us was the start of the Phillies. Opening Day and the start of baseball season in our family is a big deal. 

"We watch the spring training games, we'll even joke, 'Who do the Phillies play tonight?' It's really surreal. Spring time without baseball, especially the Phillies, is bizarre. It's really the way myself and my family get ourselves out of basketball mode. We go to Opening Day, we go to the Phillies games, we love 'Bark in the Park', we always bring the dogs. We're really going to miss it."

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Florida Gulf Coast's massive NCAA Tournament upset in Philly was the Best Game I Ever Saw Live

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Florida Gulf Coast's massive NCAA Tournament upset in Philly was the Best Game I Ever Saw Live

I'll be honest. My North Philadelphia roots didn't make room for a lot of in-person sporting events. So as an adult, getting to the games was a must and the NCAA Tournament was always high on the list. Every March, I rooted for the Philly teams and the players I loved. So when the tournament came to Wells Fargo Center in March of 2013, I was all in. 

Thanks to Florida Gulf Coast University I got the complete and full embodiment of March Madness and then some.

The WFC has seen a ton of great basketball, from Allen Iverson's ear cupped encores to the frenzied success of Villanova's second home in South Philly. 

I guarantee you it was never wilder there than when this bracket-busting 15-seed had fans mobbing them in the hallway after an upset over Georgetown.

FGCU had all the swagger of James Brown in a fresh jumpsuit taking the court against the Hoyas. I had no idea what I was about to see.

They called themselves "Dunk City" and by the time the game was over, Georgetown was also calling them Daddy. I actually had Georgetown going to the Final Four in my personal tournament bracket, which as a 2-seed was a pretty mundane pick. That may also explain some of the bitter feelings I have thinking back on the cocktail of emotions I experienced as FGCU turned my "sheet of integrity" into liner for my cats' litter box. 

I'll never forget how those blue and green uniforms flew up and down the court, dunk after dunk. But it wasn't just the fact that they were dunking or hitting important shots, it was the way they were doing it. There were alley-oops, back-door slams, tip dunks, chin-ups on the rim. There were heat check three-pointers from Conshohocken, catch-and-shoot, in-your-face threes. The FGCU Eagles were talking trash and backing it up, the whole. nine. yards.

These kids absolutely knew they could beat Georgetown and then went out and did it with as much bravado and moxie as if destiny owed them a favor. When the weekend was over, I guess it did. They beat San Diego State to reach the Sweet 16. The only 15-seed to ever do it.

For a city that loves a good underdog, this was Vince Papale and Rudy with a little Bad News Bears on the side. Unbelievable. Happy to say I was in the building for a flat-out epic NCAA Tournament game which brought the captivating theater of the unexpected right into my lap.