Atlantic 10 Refresher: New look, same tenacity

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Atlantic 10 Refresher: New look, same tenacity

Coming into the 2013-14 season, it seemed doubtful the Atlantic 10 could come anywhere close to matching the level the league ascended to last season when a record five teams made the NCAA tournament, with all five advancing to at least the Round of 32.

The conference, after all, had to deal with the departures of Butler and Xavier to the new Big East, Temple to the American Athletic Conference and Charlotte to Conference USA, while it added only former CAA member George Mason. (Davidson is set to become the Atlantic 10’s 14th team in 2014-15).

But with league play set to tip off Wednesday, one thing has become clear: The Atlantic 10 remains a very strong conference. And for the league’s two Philadelphia programs -- La Salle and Saint Joseph’s -- that represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“It really gives all of the teams a chance to really contend for postseason berths because every game you’re playing is pretty much a top 50 or a top 100 game,” La Salle head coach John Giannini. “There’s no way you’re going to finish high in this league and not be strongly considered for postseason play. Of course the challenge is that a very good team is going to finish in 10th or 11th, too. So things are about to get harder but we’re excited about the opportunity.”

While the league doesn’t have quite the same quality as it did last season, it still ranks seventh in the conference RPI, just behind the SEC and well ahead of the American, Temple’s new league. There are currently five teams in the top 50 of the RPI (Massachusetts, George Washington, Dayton, VCU and Saint Louis) and the A-10 is one of just two leagues in which five teams have 12 or more wins. It’s also one of six leagues in which every team finished .500 or better in non-conference play.

“I’m very proud of the performances of our teams -- not only in wins but whom they’ve beaten and where they’ve beaten them,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “Certainly you’re setting up for an unbelievable conference competition.”

La Salle and St. Joe’s will face the best the conference has to offer right off the bat. The Hawks will have a particularly difficult challenge, hitting the road to face a dominant UMass team on Wednesday (7 p.m., The Comcast Network).

Led by diminutive point guard Chaz Williams (15.5 ppg, 7.7 apg), the Minutemen have been one of the biggest surprises in the country, winning 12 of their first 13 games to surge to No. 5 in the RPI and No. 19 in the AP Top 25 poll.

Well, maybe they’re not a surprise to everybody.

“They’re everything we thought they were,” Martelli said. “They’re a national team. They should be talked about nationally. They should have been talked about nationally going into the season. This is a wonderful, wonderful team with tremendous balance. And every coach will tell you college basketball goes through the point guard. Tell me one that’s better than Chaz.”

St. Joe’s has been getting some nice production of late out of its own starting point guard in junior Chris Wilson, who’s averaged 13.8 points per game over the last five contests -- all St. Joe’s wins.

With Wilson, DeAndre Bembry -- who Martelli called “one of the best freshman in the league” -- and steady seniors Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic, the Hawks (9-4) boast a starting lineup that’s probably as good as any in the league.

But to finish among the top three or four teams in the league -- which might be enough to ensure the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2008 -- Martelli knows his team’s bench play must improve.

“We’re about what we thought we were,” the St. Joe’s coach said. “We need to really develop our depth. We haven’t had much success off the bench.”

Still, even without as much bench production as their coach might like, the Hawks’ only losses this season have come against relatively major programs (Creighton, LSU, Temple and Villanova). And to reel off five straight victories after the 30-point home drubbing the Hawks suffered to Big 5 rival Villanova on Dec. 7 has Martelli excited about the character of his team heading into league play.

“When you lose Philadelphia games, it’s more than just a loss,” Martelli said. “There’s a serious psychological blow that occurs. But the players deserve all the credit. They hung in, handled what they had to handle academically … and we’ve gotten better in practice.”

La Salle’s non-conference games didn’t go as well as St. Joe’s, as the Explorers enter Thursday’s A-10 opener vs. George Washington at Tom Gola Arena (8 p.m., NBCSN) with a 7-6 mark and a 130 RPI.

But like the Hawks, the Explorers certainly have the talent and potential to finish near the top of the league if things break right.

They’ll get an early indication of how they match up with the A-10's best when they face a George Washington squad, which is off to a blistering 12-2 start and ranks 25th in the RPI. Picked in the preseason to finish 10th in the A-10, the Colonials have already beaten Maryland and Creighton with their only loss coming to Kansas State.

“They’re tremendous quality of wins and record speak for themselves,” Giannini said. “They’re really big at every position. That size helps them in terms of rebounding and defense. And offensively they play really smart. They have great role definition.”

Coming into the season, La Salle figured to be a few notches ahead of George Washington on the A-10 ladder. On the heels of their run to the Sweet 16 and with all but one key player returning, the Explorers were picked to finish third in the league, behind only VCU and defending champ St. Louis.

And even though La Salle hasn’t been able to live up to its lofty preseason billing to this point, Giannini thinks the tide is shifting in part because of the improving health of star senior point guard Tyreek Duren.

“We only lost one key player in Ramon Galloway but yet our team’s very different,” the La Salle coach explained. “We really didn’t expect losing one player -- even a truly outstanding one like Ramon -- would impact us so much. But as we thought more about it, it’s almost like we lost Ramon and Tyreek. Tyreek has had plantar fasciitis since May and it’s only been in the last two, three weeks that he’s playing anything near his normal self.

“We’re really optimistic about our team right now largely because we see Tyreek getting better.”

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we paid y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."