Fastbreak Friday: Villanova looks destined for deep tournament run again

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova looks destined for deep tournament run again

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.

La Salle (5-5) at No. 4 Villanova (9-0), Sunday, 1 p.m.
Villanova returns to the Wells Fargo Center following its most impressive win of the young season — an 88-72 thumping of No. 12 Gonzaga on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. The fourth-ranked Wildcats controlled the game for the full 40 minutes and put the college basketball world on notice that they are once again legitimate national championship contenders. 

Junior forward Mikal Bridges stole the show against Gonzaga, scoring a career-high 28 points on 8 of 14 shooting from the field. Bridges punctuated the win with an incredible sequence midway through the second half — soaring for a one-handed slam over three defenders then hustling back to get a big block on the other end. Through nine games, Bridges has established himself as an All-American candidate and potential lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft (see story)

As impressive as Bridges was on Tuesday, it was the play of junior guard Phil Booth that should be most encouraging for Villanova fans. Booth scored 20 points on 9 of 14 shooting and is averaging 17 points in his last three games. After missing all but three games last season due to a knee injury, it's become apparent that Booth is now 100 percent healthy and back to being his old explosive self that was previously seen scoring a team-high 20 points in the 2016 National Championship game. Having Booth playing at this level is huge for Villanova as they gear up for the Big East portion of their schedule.

Villanova now turns its attention to La Salle on Sunday afternoon, aiming for a 21st straight Big 5 win. La Salle played the Wildcats tough last season, losing 89-79 at the Palestra in a game that was decided in the final minutes. 

But the Explorers are sputtering a bit coming into Sunday's matchup. After beating Temple two weeks ago to improve to 4-3, they've dropped two of their last three including Thursday's 72-70 home loss to Drexel. La Salle trailed by 13 at halftime before rallying in the second half only to lose in the last few seconds. 

Senior guard B.J. Johnson scored 21 points in the loss — a shade under his season average of 21.5. But Johnson is going to need a whole lot more help than he's been getting if the Explorers are going to hang with a Villanova team that is operating on a championship-caliber level on both ends of the floor.

Look for Villanova's defensive intensity to eventually wear La Salle down, and for Wildcats junior guard Jalen Brunson to bounce back for a big game after being plagued by foul trouble against Gonzaga.

Villanova 82, La Salle 63  

Saint Joseph's (4-4) at Temple (5-2), Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
It's always fun when the Big 5 teams get together. There is so much familiarity and ire between the two fanbases and each team's players feed off the energy. And this weekend's contest between the Owls and the Hawks is certainly no different.

It's been an up and down season for both so far, but the Owls have more ups than downs at this point. If anything, it's harder to figure out this Temple team than in years past. However, a win over Wisconsin just this week has me thinking that Temple is just a team still trying to get its legs under them. Either that, or they just play really, really well against football schools. I mean, look at their schedule: wins over Clemson, Auburn and now the Badgers. That would put the Owls in the FBS Playoffs. 

Fran Dunphy's squad is starting to come together nicely and a lot of that can be attributed to the strong guard play of Shizz Alston, Jr. and Josh Brown. The two are combining to score 34 points a game. In the win over Wisconsin, Alston was steady on the court and most importantly at the free throw line. He now holds the school record for most consecutive free throws made with 52 and counting, which goes back to December of last year.

Meanwhile, on City Line Avenue, the Hawks are licking their wounds after suffering their worst loss in the rivalry with Villanova, a 41-point thorough thrashing nearly a week ago. But have heart Saint Joseph's fans, this is a fantastic, potential Final Four, veteran Villanova team. So just put that in your rear view and look ahead to the rest of the Big 5 slate and the Atlantic-10 conference schedule.

As I mentioned, it's been an up and down year for St. Joe's and you can draw a direct correlation to the Hawks' struggles by looking at an injury report. For the first eight games, they've been without Charlie Brown and you can't understate his loss. Brown is an NBA prospect. And Phil Martelli would love to go with his plan A of running the plays through him. But he's doubtful for this game as well after undergoing surgery on a fractured left wrist at the end of October.

So it's been on to plan B and maybe even plan C at this point for Martelli, thanks to the loss of Lamarr Kimble at the beginning of the season. But the Hawks do have the services of James Demery and Shavar Newkirk. The two seniors are neck and neck as the Hawks leading scorers at 16.8 and 16.5 points per game, respectively.

A bright spot for the Hawks is Taylor Funk, who's averaging three made three-pointers per game, and when you have that scoring threat from the outside, it can open up the inside lanes and the post to collect points.

I do want to point out one thing: Martelli and Dunphy are great friends. They have so much respect for one another, and together with their wives, are single-handedly responsible for the most successful Coaches vs. Cancer chapter in the country. The Philadelphia chapter has raised more than 14 million dollars since 1996 and that number grows every year.

But as for this one, well for the second straight game, I think it will be a Big 5 loss for the Hawks.

Temple 75, Saint Joseph's 68

Pennsylvania (7-4) at Dayton (4-4), Saturday, 3 p.m.
Penn ventures into what is traditionally one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball for a matchup with Dayton on Saturday afternoon. The Quakers have momentum on their side, winning four of their last five with the only blemish during that stretch coming at Villanova.

Penn hung on for a 73-68 win at Lafayette on Wednesday. Sophomores A.J. Brodeur and Ryan Betley combined for 31 points as the Quakers improved their season record to 7-4. 

Saturday's visit to Dayton will offer a tough test for Penn but it's certainly a winnable game. The Flyers are in a transition season under first-year head coach Anthony Grant, who took over for Archie Miller after Miller left for Indiana following last season. Dayton has a 4-4 record, with those four wins coming against Ball State, Ohio, Akron and Tennessee Tech. 

I expect Penn to not only compete with Dayton but have a chance to win the game in the last handful of possessions. But I just can't get over the raucous homecourt advantage that UD Arena provides. I expect that to be the deciding factor in what should be a hard-fought, entertaining game on Saturday.

Dayton 70, Pennsylvania 68

Drexel (5-4) at Robert Morris (5-4) Sunday, 2 p.m.
Okay, I'll admit it. I cannot for the life of me figure this Drexel team out. And yes, as my co-author will tell you, my prediction record reflects that. I pick them to lose to Houston and they beat them by four. I pick Drexel to win over NJIT and they lose by a dozen. So it's no surprise that when I picked Rider to beat the Dragons that of course they won, and did so handily.

Maybe I should pull a George Costanza and just do the opposite of what my brain tells me. But I don't know if I can do it this time. Drexel looked pretty good last time out when they took down La Salle at the Gola on Thursday night. Yes, Kurk Lee came to play yet again with 23 points. But it was the second straight game where Sammy Mojica has shined. The senior is really finding his rhythm. He posted 19 in the win over the Explorers. And in the win last week against Rider, he poured in 22. That can mean only positive things for Zach Spiker's team. 

This weekend, the Dragons travel across the Commonwealth to face Robert Morris. Robert Morris. It's a team that draws up bad feelings in my stomach. The Colonials beat Kentucky (without Nerlens Noel, mind you) in the first round of the NIT And yes, you read that correctly. It was in the NIT But that was several years ago. So I won't let that color my judgment in predicting the winner of this one. But Drexel wins.

As much as I'd love to pick the Dragons just because of the 2013 NIT loss, I can actually use a common opponent as my reasoning. Robert Morris just beat Rider by three points Wednesday night. The same Rider team that Drexel beat by 12. So I'll go with that.

Drexel 75, Robert Morris 70

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
Amy Fadool: 3-7

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.