Fastbreak Friday: Villanova goes for Battle 4 Atlantis championship

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Fastbreak Friday: Villanova goes for Battle 4 Atlantis championship

NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and senior producer Sean Kane get you set for all the weekend’s local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

No. 5 Villanova (5-0) vs. Northern Iowa (5-1), Friday 12:00 p.m. in Battle 4 Atlantis Championship 
Villanova has done its part in a tournament that’s been unpredictable from the outset. The Wildcats used a strong second-half performance in each of their wins to this point in the Battle 4 Atlantis — pulling away for a 66-58 victory over Western Kentucky on Wednesday before overcoming a 12-point halftime deficit Thursday against Tennessee.

Meanwhile the other ranked teams in the field — No. 2 Arizona and No. 18 Purdue — have each yet to win a game in the tournament and will meet Friday night in the seventh-place game. So rather than a much anticipated top-5 showdown against Arizona in the championship game, Villanova will face Northern Iowa. 

A win would give the Wildcats their second Battle 4 Atlantis title in the last five years. It would also mark a fifth straight in-season tournament championship for Villanova. They won the Battle 4 Atlantis in 2013, the Legends Classic in 2014, the Preseason NIT in 2015, and the Charleston Classic in 2016.

Things won’t come easy against a Northern Iowa team whose only loss of the season came at No. 9 North Carolina on opening night. The Panthers are a tough, disciplined team that likes to grind it out in the halfcourt. Expect a more deliberate, low-scoring game than the one Villanova played Thursday against Tennessee.

Northern Iowa runs its offense through star big man Bennett Koch, who averages 16 points and seven rebounds per game. UNI already has wins over SMU and NC State in the Battle 4 Atlantis and the Panthers will be eager to add a top-5 win to their resume with a victory over Villanova.

Priority No. 1 for Villanova will be staying out of foul trouble, something they failed to do Thursday against Tennessee. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman all spent extended periods of time on the bench after picking up quick fouls. Brunson and Bridges still managed to be the difference makers — combining for 46 points despite playing just 29 and 23 minutes, respectively.

Look for more of the same from Brunson and Bridges in Friday’s championship game with a little more help from Omari Spellman, who was held to just one field goal Thursday. You should also expect Villanova to come out more focused in the first half after lackluster performances in the first 20 minutes of each of their last two games.

It should translate to another addition to what’s become a crowded Villanova trophy case.

Villanova 68, Northern Iowa 60

Temple (3-0) vs. La Salle (3-3), Sunday 5:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Temple may have started its season later than most, but the Owls have come out of the gates strong. They began the year at the Charleston Classic, which they promptly won after posting three straight victories. And all three came in convincing fashion, beating Old Dominion, Auburn and Clemson by an average of 10.6 points.  

It was a team effort from the Owls, but they were powered by their senior co-captain Obi Enechionyia. The forward scored in double figures in all three wins and was the tournament’s MVP. Also, look for Enechionyia to pass the 1,000 point mark for his Temple career Sunday. He only needs two more points to reach that plateau. 

As great as Enechionyia played in the Classic, probably the best sight for Fran Dunphy and the rest of the Owls faithful on that court in Charleston had to be Josh Brown. The redshirt senior is back after missing nearly all of last year because of a torn Achilles. In the opening three games, Brown tallied 26 total points and seems to be getting his legs under him after sitting out such a long time. 

La Salle has hit a bit of a skid lately. But that’s more of a testament to the tough schedule John Giannini has laid out for his team than an actual poor performance on the court. The Explorers' three-game losing streak began with a loss to No. 20 Northwestern, it continued against Boston College and most recently came in the form of a defensive battle against No. 11 Miami. 

The game against the Hurricanes actually took place in Reading, billed as the return of hometown star Lonnie Walker, a freshman for Miami. This one was not pretty if you like offense. At the half, it was all square at 19. Nineteen whole points were all either team could muster after the opening twenty minutes. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a good game. Two hard-nosed teams fighting to the end and fighting to reach the 50-point mark. 

But in the end, La Salle needed scoring, and with only two players really accounting for that in B.J. Johnson and Pookie Powell, it wasn’t enough. All the defense in the world won’t get it done when you can’t muster more than 50 points in a game. But seeing what that defense could do against a very good Hurricanes squad has to keep La Salle’s opposing coaches up at night. 

Temple is no slouch when it comes to pressure defense, so I don’t anticipate this one being a high-scoring affair. And as much as I’d like to go with the home squad at the Gola, it’s hard to pick against a team who’s riding the momentum of three straight wins. 

Temple 64, La Salle 60

St. Joseph’s (2-2) vs. Harvard (2-3), Friday 4:00 p.m. in Wooden Legacy
The biggest challenge for St. Joe’s will be putting Thursday’s frustrating loss to Washington St. behind them. The Hawks led the Cougars by as many as 20 points in the first half, only to be outscored by 18 in the second half in a 75-71 loss.

Shavar Newkirk led the Hawks with 24 points in the loss but needed 21 shots to get those 24 points. The Hawks continue to play shorthanded without Charlie Brown, who is still working his way back from a preseason wrist injury. Freshman forward Taylor Funk has stepped up in Brown’s absence. However, Funk was held to a season-low eight points against Washington St. — the first time he’s failed to crack double digits this season.

The Harvard program has taken a step back after dominating the Ivy League in recent years. The Crimson have lost three straight games, including Thursday’s 18-point loss to No.  21 St. Mary’s. 

Expect St. Joe’s to play angry after squandering that big lead Thursday and pull away from Harvard in the second half.

St. Joseph’s 74, Harvard 63 

Drexel (2-3) vs. NJIT (2-2), Saturday 4:00 p.m.
I owe the Dragons, Zach Spiker and the Drexel basketball fans an apology. I did not think this team had a snowball’s chance in a desert of beating Houston. Last week in this column, I predicted (extremely incorrectly) that Houston would dispatch the Dragons by double digits. They did not. Instead, Drexel outscored the Cougars, 46-35, in the second half and won by four points. Nicely done. I won’t mention the clear hangover-type letdown of a 20-point loss to Mercer the very next night. Let’s be positive. 

In the final game of the Paradise Jam, it was a double-overtime heartbreaker at the hands of Drake (not the rapper, but a school in Iowa) to close out the tournament. 

This one against New Jersey Institute of Technology should be easier for the Dragons to bounce back with a victory. NJIT did enjoy some Division-III success a number of years ago, reaching that level’s Final Four. But NJIT is better known for fun things like applied mathematics, biomedical engineering, and solar-terrestrial physics. Yes, I looked that up.  

Drexel 79, NJIT 68

Penn (4-3) vs. Monmouth (2-3), Saturday 7:00 p.m.
The Quakers enjoyed their time in Florida this past week and it wasn’t just because of the warm sun, clear skies and beach sand. They won two out of three in the Gulf Coast Showcase. In fact, Penn has won four of its last five games. And they’ve done it all away from home. Steve Donahue’s team won’t return to the historic confines of The Palestra until after Christmas, on Dec. 27th. 

In the tournament, A.J. Brodeur was the only Penn player to post double-figure scoring in all three games. The dynamic duo of Brodeur and Ryan Betley is the engine that makes the Quakes go. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some kudos to Darnell Foreman. The senior guard has done everything asked of him, and he’s become a key factor, scoring over 11 points on average, with four assists per game. 

Monmouth is probably better known for its crazy bench mob and not making the NCAA tournament a few years ago than anything else. They’ve had better seasons, or at least better starts to their seasons. But with only two wins so far, and by a combined nine points, King Rich is still searching for a way to get Monmouth going. 

Penn 72, Monmouth 70

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
Amy Fadool: 2-3

Knicks will reportedly reach out to Jay Wright about coaching job

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Knicks will reportedly reach out to Jay Wright about coaching job

Fresh off a second national championship in three years, this was bound to happen. Jay Wright is a hot name. 

And according to the New York Daily News, the Knicks plan on reaching out to Wright about their vacant head coaching job. 

Just don’t expect Wright to be interested. 

The 56-year-old coach has been determined to build Villanova into a powerhouse since he took the head coaching gig way back in 2001 and he’s finally done that. On the surface, maybe some think that would be enough to make him want to take his coaching to the top league in the world. Not so fast. 

In a recent interview with The Athletic, Wright said pretty flatly that he’s staying at Villanova because he loves it there. 

“The NBA does intrigue me,” Wright said. “That challenge is appealing but it’s not worth giving up working with these guys. The whole thing is, to take a new challenge you have to give up what you have. I don’t want to give up what I have. Would I like to coach in the NBA? Yes. But I have to give this up in order to do that, and I don’t see that happening.”

In that interview, Wright talked about his time at Hofstra and quoted Jim Valvano, who once said, ‘Don’t mess with happy.’ That was true at Hofstra until the Villanova job came around, so maybe there’s a chance the Knicks could blow him away. It just doesn’t seem likely. 

The Knicks just fired head coach Jeff Hornacek after a 29-53 record in 2017. The Knicks haven’t had a winning record since 2012-13. 

The New York Daily News cites a source, who said the Knicks believe Wright would be a “perfect candidate for a rebuilding club.” The Knicks might be right, but don’t bet on them getting Wright. 

Jalen Brunson hires agent, declares for NBA draft

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Jalen Brunson hires agent, declares for NBA draft

Villanova is losing its second star player in two days. 

Guard Jalen Brunson has decided to hire an agent and enter the 2018 NBA Draft, he wrote in a letter to Nova Nation on ESPN. He will forego his senior season at Villanova after an incredible college career. 

This news comes a day after his teammate Mikal Bridges announced he will also head to the NBA draft.

“It is with great honor and privilege that I have called Villanova University my home for the past three years,” Brunson wrote in ESPN. “When I decided to commit to Coach Jay Wright and the basketball program, I was driven by three goals: getting my education, competing at the highest level and winning a national championship. While I pride myself on remaining disciplined and focused to achieve these goals, I have grown as a man and have established lifelong relationships with my teammates, classmates, members of the basketball staff, fellow student-athletes and the wonderful educators and administrators of this prestigious university.”

Brunson leaves Villanova as one of the greatest players in Wildcats history, helping lead Villanova to its second national championship in three years. 

The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 18.9 points, 4.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game this season. Brunson was named the Big East Player of the Year and was the Wooden Award and Naismith Award winner this season.