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.

Saint Joseph's comeback bid comes up short vs. Florida

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Saint Joseph's comeback bid comes up short vs. Florida

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Keyontae Johnson saw Florida’s big lead shrink to almost nothing in the final minute. He made sure his teammates didn’t let this one get away from the Gators.

Johnson had a career-high 22 points to lead the Gators to a 70-62 victory over Saint Joseph’s at the Charleston Classic, playing without ejected leading scorer Kerry Blackshear Jr. on Thursday. Not that it came easily as Florida (3-2) saw its 18-point lead cut to 64-62 in the final minute.

“We just communicated, told everyone to stay together,” Johnson said. “We stayed locked in.”

The focus proved the difference as Florida hit six foul shots down the stretch while Saint Joseph’s missed two shots and committed a pair of turnovers.

“Down the stretch, I thought we showed a tremendous toughness,” Florida coach Mike White said.

The Gators needed it with Blackshear missing almost all of the game. He played three minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls. Then he was thrown out when he was battling underneath and his elbow looked like it hit Saint Joseph’s guard Taylor Funk. Blackshear, who came in averaging 14 points and 12 boards, was called for a flagrant two foul and sent off the court.

Blackshear’s departure seemed to energize the Hawks (2-3), who trailed 43-27 when the Florida star left the court. That’s when St. Joseph’s went on a 29-16 spurt to cut it to three points on Funk’s basket with six minutes left.

But Johnson followed with a basket and Andrew Nembhard made another to extend the lead.

St. Joseph’s had one last charge, slicing things to 64-62 on Ryan Daly’s layup in the final minute. The Hawks had several chances to tighten things, but could not. “We’re not going to go down easy,” Daly said.

Florida will take on Miami here Friday for a spot in the Charleston Classic finals.

The Hawks face Missouri State on Friday.

Johnson also had a game-high 12 rebounds. Nembhard added 16 points.

Florida took control quickly and appeared to make this a runaway as Noah Locke had two 3-pointers and Nembhard also hit one from behind the arc as the Gators went ahead 11-2 less than two minutes in and steadily built its lead.

St. Joseph’s had hit 34 first-half 3s combined its first four games. It made just one of its 14 long-range attempts this time as it fell behind.

Daly led the Hawks with 25 points.

Swider scores 26, No. 17 Villanova routs MTSU 98-69

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Swider scores 26, No. 17 Villanova routs MTSU 98-69

CONWAY, S.C. -- It’s been awhile since No. 17 Villanova shot this well from long range. Cole Swider has never scored like this.

Swider scored a career-high 26 points with six 3-pointers, and the Wildcats routed Middle Tennessee 98-69 on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

Collin Gillespie added 16 points and hit four 3s, Justin Moore finished with 15 points and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 11 rebounds to help Villanova (3-1) - which never trailed, led by 35 and shot 57% while winning its second straight following a 25-point loss at No. 10 Ohio State.

And yet, another number in the box score caught coach Jay Wright’s eye - Swider’s seven rebounds.

“He’s more than just a shooter,” Wright said.

And the Wildcats have plenty of those. They made 18 3s - one shy of the school record, and their most since they also had 18 in a victory over Kansas at the 2018 Final Four.

“They have elite size with great shooters,” Middle Tennessee coach Nick McDevitt said, “and any short close-out or decent close-out results in three points.”

Eleven of them came during a first-half barrage that pushed the lead well into the 20s. Swider hit his fifth 3 from the corner shortly before the buzzer to put the Wildcats up 53-28 at halftime.

Saddiq Bey then took the lead to 30 with a 3-pointer two minutes into the second half.

Donovan Sims scored 18 points and C.J. Jones had 16 for the Blue Raiders (3-2). Leading scorer Antonio Green, averaging 23.5 points going into the game, finished with four points on 1-of-7 shooting while dealing with foul trouble.

“They’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts, so they were switching just to never let him see space,” McDevitt said.