The NCAA Tournament is one of the best American sporting events and this year’s rendition has a case for it to be the best in its storied history. So far, the college basketball season has been loaded with incredible games between top ranked talent, upsets galore, and the birth of future stars. More exclusively in Philadelphia, much of the same has happened between Villanova, Temple, Penn, La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, and Drexel. So, with the Final Four just a few months away, it is as good of a time as ever to break out the brackets and get to predicting the postseason outcomes for each team.
Record as of 1/28: 3-17
Analysis: It has been a tough year for Drexel in all facets of the program. With Damion Lee transferring to Louisville for graduate school following a stellar season, it left head coach Bruiser Flint with little to work with. Freshman guard Terrell Allen and junior big man Rodney Williams are bright spots on team, showing signs that they are going to be focal points of the squad following this year. Williams, a standout at St. Christopher’s High School in Virginia, currently ranks ninth all time in Dragons blocked shots history with 96 stuffed in two and half seasons. Allen, who ranks second on the team in scoring with 10.2 points per game, provides the necessary skills at the guard position with scoring and quick passes. The other Allen, Tavon, is back for his final season and Dragon fans have to be happy with that. Tavon’s gradual increase in production year by year was just the answer to head coach Bruiser Flint’s problem following Damion Lee’s transferring to Louisville. Overall, the team just isn’t up to par with the rest of the CAA, falling in all but one of their eight league contests to date. Their lone CAA win came at home against the College of Charleston by a score of 61-54, who is 13-7 on the year. The two other wins were against Penn and La Salle earlier in the season. Those kinds of wins against fellow city teams are paramount for a struggling program, since they have known each other so well and have played since the 1900s.
Final verdict: The Dragons will probably make much noise in the CAA playoffs, especially with tight competition at the top of the conference with James Madison, UNC Wilmington, Hofstra, William and Mary, and Towson. It will likely shake out with DU snagging the 9 seed in the tournament, squaring up against Elon, who beat the Dragons already this year. Unless they win the tournament and shock the likes of JMU, UNCW, or W+M, an NCAA Tournament is far from plausible this time around.
Record as of 1/28: 5-13
Analysis: La Salle is the type of team this season that keeps it close in games, but falls short towards the end. The record doesn’t show some of the true ability of this team. The schedule for the Explorers has been an interesting one too, giving a good mix of nonconference opponents. Most notably, La Salle took on Towson at home, #9/6 Villanova at the Pavilion, #13/16 Miami (FL) at the Palestra, Florida Gulf Coast on the road, and Temple as part of the Big 5 double header. For a program trying to gain its footing in a tough Atlantic-10, reaching out to ACC schools like Miami can give the Explorers a chance to cause an upset so that when they enter league play, teams that have been in the rankings in other points of the season like Dayton or VCU will have to watch out. Despite their lowly record, La Salle averages 8.1 points less than an opponent per game, making close games a frequent. Take the January 16th game at Rhode Island for example. Junior Jordan Price had 20 points and sophomore Johnnie Shuler had a career high 16 points in the losing effort, contributing to a 17-9 run in a 7 minute span by the Rams which gave them the lead. It is evident the team is moving in the right direction, but finishing the regular season strong and heading into A-10 playoffs looking to make some noise is the right mindset.
Final verdict: Similarly with Drexel, La Salle is going to need to try and snag some tough wins as conference play goes down the stretch in an effort to gain momentum going into the A-10 tournament. The Explorers face five teams ranked in the top five of the conference over eight games, a hard challenge for any team, but would benefit immensely from winning two of those five games in addition to taking 2/3 from the bottom five teams in that stretch. This would give La Salle a record of 9-16, inching them closer to a potential first round bye in the tournament. A postseason appearance, whether it is NCAA, NIT, or CBI is very unlikely but the foundation for a further run next season is in place.
Record as of 1/28: 6-9
Analysis: Penn strung together some decisive wins this season, but just couldn’t keep a hold on to the momentum early on and have stumbled as of late. The team has fallen in four of their last five contests, despite playing well and hard. Three of said losses came in overtime by a total margin of eight points. Offensively, they have been focused on sophomore big man Darien Nelson-Henry, a Lake Washington High School graduate, who leads the team with 12.3 points per game. Production from a big man is at a premium these days in college basketball and the Ivy League especially. Penn, who just opened conference play, has a tricky road ahead, when they play Yale, Columbia, and Harvard in a five game stretch from February 20th to March 5th. Shooting from freshman guard Jackson Donahue has been a spark plug as of late, and continued success for him would help the Quakers gain some footing in the conference, especially without former starting guard Antonio Woods, who violated academic policies at Penn.
Final verdict: Neither an Ivy League title or an NCAA Tournament appearance are in the foreseeable future for this team, unfortunately. The Ivy League is difficult to map out each season because of their lack of a conference tournament and they mere eight teams. Penn does have four recruits coming in for next season, so fresh faces to follow in the footsteps of current freshmen Jackson Donahue, Jake Silpe, and Max Rothschild, who have produced more than expected, is a definite plus. When programs go through swings of positives and negatives, it is important to find a medium and Penn has a nucleus that head coach Steve Donahue and the rest of the staff can work with in the years to come. The hope is that they can gain some traction and that they can go from a tie for 6th place like they are now, to a top four or even top three team and draw some attention back to the Quakers.
Record as of 1/28: 11-8
Analysis: Temple University as a whole has had such a thrilling run in the athletic department this school year with the recent success of the football team. Head coach Fran Dunphy has been reportedly on the hot seat at TU, ever since the rumored hiring of Rick Brunson as assistant coach and successor to the Dunphy throne, former Temple and Chicago Bulls player and father of Villanova freshman guard Jalen Brunson, came up. When the air cleared up a bit at the start of the season, Temple immediately was put to the test, facing unanimous preseason #1 UNC in Annapolis, Maryland. Going up against any Carolina team is a challenge, but TU was victim to the the AP Poll, as they fell in 2 of 3 games to ranked opponents as a part of the Puerto Rico Tip Off in San Juan. Easy wins against Delaware, Fairleigh-Dickinson, Delaware State, sprinkled in with a few losses versus Wisconsin in Madison and an OT L against Saint Joseph’s at home. Most Owl fans were probably hoping for a better turnout in the beginning portion of the season, but there isn’t much you can do against #22/20 Butler and #16/16 Utah on a neutral court or an overtime loss to a Big 5 rival. Opening up American Athletic Conference play in a huge way was just the spark the Cherry and White needed. Cincinnati is a notoriously grind-it-out type of team and sits with Temple right in the upper-class of the AAC, so taking them down at home in 2OT was a testament to both teams’ ability. Temple’s versatility comes from the depth of their roster. Those who have played in the 18 games thus far are averaging double digits in minutes, with most averaging 20 or more. Senior guard and Clemson transfer Devin Coleman alongside fellow senior guard Quenton DeCosey have been the go-to scoring options for coach Dunphy recently. DeCosey has been productive to say the least, scoring 10 points or higher in all but two games, both of which resulted in losses (12/5 vs Wisconsin, 1/2 vs Houston). In a game where many thought it should’ve been an easy win, the Owls fell on the road to East Carolina in a wild finish. With the score all tied up at 61, Pirates’ freshman Kentrell Barkley converted an and-one with just seconds remaining to seal the win off of a crazy tipped ball sequence. Despite the disappointing end result, Temple had stellar performances from Obi Enechionyia, who lead the team with 18 points. Their leading scorer, DeCosey, also had a solid game with 14 points, including a steal late in the game that led to the scoring being tied up at 61. In a match where there were 14 lead changes, Cherry and White fans shouldn’t disregard the fact that freshman center and Archbishop Carroll alumnus, Ernest Aflakpui, had career highs in points (8), rebounds (14), and minutes played (25). After he suffered a knee injury just a few weeks into the season last year at Carroll, it is really great to see him out on the court and getting quality time as a freshman in college. Despite the loss, good things are to come for the Owls.
Final verdict: Temple actually has a very solid shot to win its league this year. With SMU’s suspensions and postseason bans, TU could wind up with the #1 seed in the conference tournament if they win out in conference games. Even if the standings stay as they are now, Temple would play either Houston or South Florida, and the Owls would much rather play against the latter of the two teams. If Temple can in fact win out and make it to the semifinals of the league tournament, they could make it close enough to the top 25 where they would find themselves in a position to have an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, drawing a 13 or even an 12 seed. Without a doubt this team has the talent and potential to make it that far, but crazier things happen before.
Record as of 1/28: 17-3
Analysis: Honestly, anything out of SJU this season after the way they played last season. Many thought they would be a middle of the pack team and not even be in consideration for the postseason. But now, St. Joe’s is a legitimate contender for the A-10 title this year and have put together a resume of solid wins against the likes of Temple at the Liacouras Center. That rarely is a sure-fire bet, especially when the Cherry and White have shown that they can be really hot this year, but the Hawks prevailed in overtime thanks to Lamarr Kimble’s go-ahead three ball in OT. Kimble’s trey sealed the first win for SJU at Temple since 2008. Running through the rest of the nonconference with ease, and only two losses on the year to Florida and Villanova in the Holy War, VCU came around. It was a battle towards the end, but the Hawks really played well. Down by one at the half, they went on an 11-0 run and were up by 10 for a little while to start off the 2nd half. VCU battled back and regained the lead for good with about six minutes remaining. With Naismith Memorial Player of the Year candidate DeAndre Bembry leading the way with co-star Isaiah Miles, the Hawks are a well-built team with consistency from both their starters to the bench. It’s hard to see any major stumbling blocks in the way of the Saint Joseph’s success.
Final verdict: Barring any upset losses, a definite A-10 top 3 spot in the tournament with a chance at #2 if they beat Dayton at home on February 17th. SJU will most likely make it into the NCAA tournament as a potential 12 seed. Some bracketologists have them as a play-in team, but an at-large bid is most definitely in reach for the Hawks.
Record as of 1/28: 17-3
Analysis: To be honest, there is not a more complete team in the country than the Villanova Wildcats. That being said, there is so much parity this year that they are still beatable. As they have shown all season, besides the three-point shot, there isn’t just one area of the game that Villanova relies on too much: their man to man defense is solid, their zone has improved mightily, passing hasn’t been an issue, rebounding is manageable despite a lack of big men, and their inside/mid-range shooting has been smooth all year. With so many deadly aspects to their arsenal, VU is unbelievably strong when they get on a roll. What makes this Villanova team so great is that the rest of the conference is so good, that every game matters and for the most part, the ‘Cats play like it. If you want to be critical, Villanova did get blown out by Oklahoma and Virginia, yes. They lost to Providence yesterday in a game they should’ve won, yes. BUT the OU game was a neutral site and they have this kid named Buddy Hield, who may be the best player in the country. Virginia is a perennial ACC contender with its continued defensive pressure and wholistic game and Providence is lead by the reigning Big East Player of the Year, Kris Dunn. Don’t point to the statistics and say Villanova isn’t good, because they will tell you otherwise. ‘Nova is the #1 ranked team in Ratings Percentage Index, #2 in strength of schedule thanks to neutral site games against Stanford, Georgia Tech, and OU as well as marquee nonconference games at SJU and at Temple, #6 in the country in the AP and Coaches polls, reaching fourth just last week. Six of their seventeen wins have come against teams ranked in the top 50 of RPI. Still not a believer? Just watch the tape. The Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart tag team is one of the best in the country without a doubt. Arch scores from all over the court and Hart adds with an unprecedented ability at rebounding for a guard, as he ranks second on the team with 143 this year. The complimentary offensive pieces go from 2015 Illinois High School Player of the Year Jalen Brunson to redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges to guard Phil Booth to shooter Kris Jenkins, and 2013 PIAA AAAA State Champion Darryl Reynolds. An all-around stellar cast to go along with former Coach of the Year Jay Wright, provides the ‘Cats with a great chance at glory come March.
Final verdict: It is quite possible that Villanova wins the Big East Regular Season and Tournament Champions outright and back-to-back for the first time ever. Joe Lunardi thinks that the ‘Cats will be a 1 seed in the West Region, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them as a 2 seed in the East. As a result of their fantastic play, making an Elite Eight or maybe even a Final Four run wouldn’t be a gigantic surprise.
Around the New Year, people often make “New Year’s resolutions.” These are normally positive changes they want to make to their lives. Here are The Empire’s New Year’s resolutions for each team of the City 6:
Drexel: Continue to get consistent play from Tavon Allen
Coming into the season, many wondered if Tavon Allen could shoulder just some of the load that Damion Lee had handled in his time in Philly. And at times Allen has, but too many times he hasn’t. If the Dragons want any sort of success, Allen will have to be more consistent in his offensive output. When the senior has shot above 40% from the field, the Dragons are 2-1. When he has had more than 2 turnovers, they’re winless. The bottom line is that Drexel is only averaging 64.5 points per game. They need more from Allen. That starts from making sure he is taking high percentage shots and then knocking down the open shots he receives. But Drexel will not win if Allen can’t be more consistent on the offensive end because he is their most talented scorer when he is on.
Penn: Play through Darien Nelson-Henry on offense and defense
Penn is best when they are playing through Darien Nelson-Henry. This means getting him a plethora of touches, especially where he can make things happen. When he gets the ball, teams have to collapse and help out, leaving open shots for the big man’s teammates. As one of the bigger and more talented big men in the Ivy League, Nelson-Henry has great touch and feel for the game on the block. Not many teams have been able to contain him offensively, as he has shot 50% or above from the field in 8 of their 12 games. He additionally has scored double digits in all but three of their games. But he still isn’t getting enough shots (8.9 per game), but they have played best when they have consistently got him the ball. Defensively, Penn has to commit to playing aggressive on-ball defense. This is because they know that Nelson-Henry will be manning the middle ready to help. He is a great interior defender and provides trouble for players of all sizes. The Quakers need to make sure they force the game into the hands of their senior captain, Darien Nelson-Henry.
La Salle: Play with more intensity
La Salle began the season with a bang. Against Towson, the Explorers found themselves playing with only five scholarship players for the final eight or so minutes. They played hard. They played with fire. They played with intensity. They played like the team that wanted to win more. Since then, there hasn’t been a defining game where the team played with 100%. As the New Year comes around, La Salle needs to play with more intensity. If La Salle can do this, they will win some games in the A-10. They have the go-to scorer. They have the solid role players to complement superstar Jordan Price. The question just remains: do they really want it and how bad? Ultimately, playing with more heat would lead to more efficient offense and better overall defensive play.
Saint Joseph’s: Keep using depth to their advantage
With such a great start to the season, there haven’t been too many struggles for the Hawks. And to be honest, there isn’t much they should change. However, if there is one aspect that could help them better improve, it would be using their depth to their advantage. To this point, coach Martelli has done a pretty solid job of using his bench, as 8 players have played in more than 10 games and averaged more than 10 minutes per game. Guys like Javon Baumann, Chris Clover, and Markell Lodge saw consistent playing time in each game early on in the season. Lately, however, it seems that coach Martelli is starting to close his rotation a bit, as only 8 players played in their last game against Maryland-Eastern Shore. Although they did win, it would be wise to continue keeping a deep rotation because Saint Joseph’s has the talent to do so. It was just a year ago that Baumann was starting and Clover was putting up 20 points per game at Saint Joe’s Prep. Coach Martelli’s willingness to play 10 players early in the season is a major reason why the Hawks are 10-2. Not only does it allow his major contributors to get a quick breather, but it keeps the defense off balance and on their toes.
Temple: More consistent shooting and offensive output
When Temple went into the Cincinnati game this past Wednesday, not many saw the Owls coming out with a win. The team has yet to beat a ranked opponent, despite the plethora of opportunities they’ve already encountered. But Temple came in ready to play and they started out AAC conference play with a bang. This was in part thanks to their consistent offensive play. The team shot 50% from the field, 45% from three, and only gave up 8 turnovers. However, this is not an accurate description of how the Owls have played during the season on the offensive end. Part of this comes from their inability to hit open shots and shoot the ball well from the perimeter. On the year, the team is shooting 32% from three and only one player (Obi Enechionyia) shoots above 40% from three. But when Temple can shoot well, they are hard to slow down and can play with nearly anyone in the country. The question is, can they produce even without shooting well? This is a problem they will need to solve or Temple will struggle to consistently win games in a tough AAC conference.
Villanova: Get Daniel Ochefu more involved
The Wildcats enter the New Year ranked 16th in the nation. But there are still many aspects they can work on, as they fell to two of the three ranked teams they played in 2015. If ‘Nova wants to compete for a championship, they will need to improve their game, specifically by getting big man Daniel Ochefu more involved. Too often the ‘Cats fall in love with the three point shot and forget about the 6-foot-11 big man. Ochefu needs to be their number one option and honestly, he should probably touch the ball every possession. The team is at their best when the offense runs through the man who is shooting 62% from the field and averaging 9.5 points per game. When the ball does run through the big man, they are at their best. In the Penn game, Ochefu scored 9 of the team’s first 11 points to help set the tone for the game. When ‘Nova starts to get too three point happy, they need to remember their most well-rounded and dynamic offensive player -- Daniel Ochefu.
Photo: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports