Steve Donahue

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.

Penn makes it 2 Big 5 teams in the NCAA Tourney

Penn makes it 2 Big 5 teams in the NCAA Tourney

Darnell Foreman scored 19 points, AJ Brodeur had 16 points and 10 rebounds and Penn earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007 with a 68-65 win over Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament title game Sunday.

Ryan Betley added 17 points for the Quakers (24-8), who will be making their 24th appearance in the NCAAs.

Senior Caleb Wood, a junior college transfer, drilled two straight 3-pointers, getting fouled on the second, to put Penn ahead 63-60 with 3:42 remaining. Betley followed with a 3-point play, before Harvard's Christian Juzang pulled the Crimson to 66-63 with a 3-pointer with 47.6 seconds to go.

Harvard trimmed Penn's lead to 66-65 on two Justin Bassey foul shots with 14.6 seconds left. But after Betley hit two free throws, Bassey and Juzang both missed potentially game-tying threes in the final seconds, and Penn fans stormed the court for a celebration a decade in the making.

Chris Lewis led Harvard (18-13) with 16 points, while Bassey had 15 and Seth Towns, the league's player of the year, finished with 13.

Harvard and Penn proved to be the top two teams in the Ivies this year after sharing the regular-season title with 12-2 conference records and then dominating Cornell and Yale, respectively, in Saturday's Ivy League Tournament semifinal games.

And after splitting their two regular-season meetings, both teams traded punches like heavyweight fighters in front of a packed crowd at the Palestra, Penn's home gym.

Fueled by a 16-0 run in which Penn was held scoreless for seven minutes, Harvard led 30-17 with five minutes left in the first half. That's when the Quakers turned things around, closing the first half on a 17-2 run capped by a Foreman 3-pointer right before the buzzer. Foreman, who sprinted right into the locker room as the Palestra crowd went wild, scored his 19 points all in the first half.

The Quakers continued to surge after the break, with sophomore standouts Brodeur and Betley combining to score the first 11 points of the first half to put the Quakers ahead 45-32 and complete a 28-2 run spanning halves.

Trailing by 10 midway through the second half, Harvard reeled off a 13-0 run to take a 58-55 lead, sparked by 3-point plays from Bassey and Juzang.

Once a staple of the NCAA Tournament, Penn went to the tourney seven times between 1999 and 2007 before falling on hard times, due in large part to the rise of Harvard.

Big picture
Harvard: Despite Sunday's result, the Crimson continue to be the class of the Ivies with Tommy Amaker at the helm, having won six Ivy League championships since 2011 with NCAA Tournament wins in 2013 and 2014.

Penn: The Quakers have made a speedy turnaround under third-year coach Steve Donahue. And with only two key players graduating and several underclassmen returning from injury, they should be poised to remain at the top of the Ivies next season and beyond.

Up next
Harvard receives an automatic berth in the NIT by virtue of its top seed in the Ivies.

Penn is headed to the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova 'can't hear anything' in wild win inside loud Jake Nevin Field House

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Villanova 'can't hear anything' in wild win inside loud Jake Nevin Field House

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Jay Wright has his team’s routine down pat before games at the Pavilion or the Wells Fargo Center.

But ahead of Wednesday’s game at Jake Nevin Field House, the Villanova head coach realized he had forgotten something.

“We didn’t have a pregame meal,” he said. “We’re so used to doing it the way we do it, we missed out on setting it up. We all walked to the cafeteria and ate in the cafeteria with other students."

Wright paused and smiled, an interesting realization setting in.

“That’s probably what everybody always did," he said.

Call it another nostalgic touch in a game filled with them.

Inspired by the ghosts of Villanova past, the Wildcats put on a memorable performance in the program’s first game at Jake Nevin Field House since 1986, rolling to a 90-62 win over Penn (see observations).

But it was only after the final horn sounded and they walked off the court at the old “Cat House” that they could enjoy it. During the game, they couldn’t really do much in the way of talking with each other.

“Wild atmosphere,” Wright said. “It’s a difficult place to play for everybody, including the home team. You can’t hear anything. We legitimately had trouble communicating defensively. … I can’t imagine what that place used to be like when they had more seats in here.”

On Wednesday, there were only about 2,000 fans in the building — Villanova’s home court from 1931 until the Pavilion, now undergoing renovations, was built in 1986 — but almost all of them were students who were standing the whole game, singing in unison during breaks in the action, and erupting after every Villanova bucket.

“It was honestly awesome,” said point guard Jalen Brunson, who led Villanova with 17 points. “It was definitely a great experience. Like Coach said, it was hard to hear sometimes. I tried reading lips. I couldn’t really hear him.”

Redshirt freshman Omari Spellman had similar issues with the noise, saying he had to ask teammate Mikal Bridges “the same question 50 times.” Some of that, of course, was his own doing as his thunderous dunk midway through the first half brought down the house and set the tone as ’Nova began to pull away.

What was he thinking about on that play, as he stole the ball at midcourt and streaked toward the basket?

“Oh, I double-dribbled,” he said. “The ref didn’t call it. I definitely double-dribbled.”

That was one of a few tough breaks for the Quakers, who actually played a decent first half but still went into halftime down 18 points. The game was never close again, although Penn head coach Steve Donahue didn’t point to the atmosphere as a reason for the lopsided defeat.

“It’s not that different, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “It’s very comparable to probably 150 programs in America who play in a similar facility.”

Donahue gave much more credit to the Villanova players, who never took their foot off the gas en route to their 19th straight Big 5 victory.

“Sometimes you watch them on film and you’re slightly underwhelmed because they don’t have crazy talent,” said Donahue, who coached in the ACC with Boston College for four years. “On tape, Villanova doesn’t jump out like other teams. But what’s apparent when you play them is I’ve never coached against a team that’s smarter and tougher and more selfless.”

Wright, who can be critical of his team, admitted his team played really well and that if it didn’t, an improved Penn squad might have been able to keep it close. 

But even though he’s pleased by it, he’s equally baffled by how well the Wildcats have been able to consistently throttle Big 5 opponents over the last five seasons.

“We live here,” he said. “We watch these teams. … We play against each other in the summers. Penn will come to our place in the summer and we’ll go down to Penn. We have great respect for them. We’ll play five games and sometimes Penn will win three out of five.”

He added he doesn’t like to think about the Big 5 streak, which could hit 20 if they can beat archrival St. Joe’s at Hagan Arena on Saturday. The Wildcats then face La Salle at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 10 before perhaps their toughest Big 5 game of the season — at Temple on Dec. 13.

Without the benefit of playing any games at the Pavilion, could their city streak end this season?

“I think you’re gonna see three other great games against Villanova,” Donahue said. “I do feel like we want to end that streak. There’s no doubt. 

“I do think Villanova has it going but that being said, I think those three programs could beat them this year because it’s the Big 5 and the kids know each other.”