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.