Big 5 Tip-off Tonight; Penn, 'Nova, Joe's and La Salle All in Action

Big 5 Tip-off Tonight; Penn, 'Nova, Joe's and La Salle All in Action

It's that time again. Teams across the nation will kick off the opening night of college basketball season this Friday evening—two of them will do so on an air craft carrier.

Of the schools that comprise our local Big 5, four will be in action, with only the Temple Owls on the sidelines. They will open their season next Monday night in the official "Big 5 opener" when they take on the Penn Quakers from inside the Palestra.

Game times and opponents for each of the local team's, accompanied by a brief preview of the major story lines surrounding each program as they prepare to begin their 2011-2012 seasons, after the jump...

(1) The Villanova University Wildcats vs. the Monmouth Hawks (7 p.m.)
It seems like just about everybody is down on the Wildcats this year. I'm no exception. Though I'll be damned if I don't like watching Maalik Wayns play basketball.

This is the first year in some time where Villanova doesn't boast instantly recognizable names in its back court. The legacy of Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes is now passed to the less publicized, but still highly talented Wayns. The Wildcats were something of a flawed team last year, which perhaps was part of the reason Maalik would come and go on the offensive end, exploding one night and looking invisible another.

Chalk it up as part of the maturation process for the now-junior. In a guard heavy city, Wayns has the talent to be one the best, it's just a matter of whether he has the roster around him to help lead his team. Big man Mouphtaou Yarou will need to take a massive step forward if the 'Cats expect to do better than their preseason No. 8 in the Big East.

(2) The La Salle University Explorers vs. the Lafayette Leopards (7 p.m. / 990 AM)
Every year I write that head coach John Giannini is on the hot seat, that his emotional outbursts haven't correlated with a positive win total and that his ability to recruit very real talent hasn't led to any sort of cohesion on the floor. Still, every year I type this paragraph, because every year Dr. G remains the man in charge at the Gola Arena.

I wish I could say more for the Explorers, but with their greatest and most wildly enigmatic talent—Aaric Murray—now walking the streets of Morgantown, West Virginia, it's hard to see them being markedly better or, for that matter, worse than they've been in recent years. La Salle has made a habit of winning games it shouldn't win, losing games it shouldn't lose, and keeping you guessing about how good or bad it really is for three-fourths of the season. I don't mean to be so pithy, but unless freshman Jerrell Wright and and newcomer Ramon Galloway are ready to contribute immediately, there's little reason not to expect more of the same at Broad & Olney.

That said, Giannini seems more than excited for the season, and has not-so-subtly hinted at a dissatisfaction with his past players.

"We now have kids who will do what we tell them, and they're committed to winning and committed to defense," Giannini said, practically oozing enthusiasm. "Some teams don't have that. Last year, we didn't have that. We have great chemistry right now. These kids work hard without someone calling team meetings or without their teammates yelling at them trying to push each other."

It's tough to tell if this is the legitimate optimism of a coach with something of a fresh start, or the false hope that things will, this time, really be better. Hopefully for his staff's future, Dr. G is right about this group of Explorers, but keep on the lookout as I establish a charity fund to help stop the abuse of the folding chair seated beside the head coach.

(3) University of Pennsylvania Quakers @ the UMBC Retrievers. (7:30 p.m. / 88.5 FM)
Penn enters its season on the strength of a veteran back court, featuring senior guards Zack Rosen and Tyler Bernadini. Rosen—who has been described by his coach as "one of the best, if not the best guard in our program's history"—has the privilege of playing under Jerome Allen: one of the best, if not the best guard in the program's history.

Aiming to settle their friendly rivalry, the two recently went at it in a pick-up game of one-on-one, televised on Comcast SportsNet. The game, originally agreed to be played to three, was quickly extended when Rosen bested the coach. It quickly ended when Allen was the first to get to five. Not only does the old guy still have it, but he's also in control of when the game starts and stops.

Rosen and Bernadini will attempt to lead Penn back to the glory it so enjoyed when it's current coach was a player under Fran Dunphy. Picked to finish fourth in the preseason Ivy League polls, Penn will need to find a way to take down Harvard, Princeton and Yale if they want to make a serious run at the league title. Out of conference, watch for them to give their Big 5 rivals, and some of their other non-conference opponents, a legitimate scare.

(4) The St. Joseph's University Hawks @ the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (8 p.m. / Fox College Sports / 610 AM)
I'd have to go back to 2004 to remember the last time I was this emotionally invested in a St. Joseph's basketball team for all the right reasons. After years of wishing little but ill upon them as proud a Temple Owl, I am completely and totally in the tank for Langston Galloway. There's no way around it. I hate that he plays for the Hawks, but I firmly believe he's the real deal. And he'll need to be if they're going to succeed.

Carl Jones has more talent than he knows what to do with, but he still needs to find a way to channel that talent into an ability to make more responsible decisions with the basketball. C.J. Aiken, on the other hand, has more of a physical body than he knows what to do with. Honestly, I've never seen a basketball player with less natural physical movements. Still, he's one hell of a shot blocker—actually, he's one of the best in the nation. Just do yourself a favor Phil, teach the kid a post move. At his height, the ability to play face up should be a nice feature, not his dominant offensive weapon.

The Hawks have a lot of young talent, and their surprising run in last year's A10 tournament gives rise to optimism. Am I reall
y going to root for St. Joe's to do more than just beat 'Nova this year (which I also haven't done for the last five years)? Sheesh. Moving on...

(5) The Temple University Owls vs. the Penn Quakers (Monday / 7 p.m. / 1210 AM)
After every game for the last two seasons, I've listened to Fran Dunphy tell the media, "I don't know where this program would be without Lavoy Allen." And now, here we are.

The Owls absurdly talented and experienced back court is contrasted with their troublingly thin and inexperienced front court. Michael Eric not only needs to stay healthy given an expected substantial increase in minutes, but needs to continue his improvement from last year at both ends of the floor.

Expect a lot of four guard action from the Owls this season, especially when small forward Scootie Randall returns from injury. In the meantime, he'll more than likely be replaced in the starting line-up by last year's A10 Sixth Man of the Year Khalif Wyatt. We all know what the Owls have in the back court, and they figure to absolutely frightening in the open floor, but they'll need those guards to play a big part in rebounding the basketball. They'll also need substantial contributions from junior Rhalir Jefferson and red-shirt freshman Anthony Lee at the power forward position to take some of the load off Eric in the middle.

As mentioned up top, they'll kick-off the Big 5 season schedule Monday night against Penn. One night later, Villanova squares off against La Salle.

Basketball is back. No one tell the NBA.

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

With three sacks in three games, Brandon Graham is off to the fastest start of his career by far, already almost halfway to his career high of 6½. Naturally, the Eagles' defensive end is excited about the production, but not nearly as excited as he was with the defense as a whole after a 34-3 romp over the Steelers on Sunday.

"For us, I was just happy we stayed together, we played together and the outcome was good," Graham said postgame. "Hats off to Pittsburgh because we did a lot of planning for them. We respect them a lot.

"I am just happy to get this win and I am happy in the style we did it."

Graham was one of four Eagles players to bring down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, marking the first time the seventh-year veteran has recorded at least one sack in three consecutive games. In fact, prior to this season, Graham had never posted a sack in Week 1.

For once, the numbers are taking care of themselves for Graham — although that's not what he's focused on.

"Since I've been here, I've never gotten a sack in the first game, and I've never been consistent," Graham said. "I'm just trying to be the leader, go out there, get W's and be relentless."

There are plenty of explanations for Graham's seemingly sudden emergence.

This is only his second season as a full-time player in the NFL after injuries, then depth conspired to keep the 2010 first-round pick on the bench early in his career. Perhaps all he needed was an opportunity. The switch back to a 4-3 defense and wide-nine front no doubt helped rejuvenate Graham's career as well, allowing him to move from outside linebacker back to his natural position at defensive end and focus on rushing the passer.

With Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Marcus Smith all rotating in at end, Graham is also being kept fresh. Last season, the Eagles lacked the quality reserves to provide many breathers for Barwin and Graham on the outside.

"It's a great feeling because there's no pressure to hurry up and get back out," Graham said. "I feel like everybody is just as good and there's no drop-off when we come out of there.

"It's definitely going to help us later on in the year. It's been helping now."

There are all sorts of schematic reasons why Graham could finally be on his way to a breakout season. This will be his first full season as a starter at D-end in a 4-3, it's the first time since 2012 he's in a wide-nine and the defense no longer has to be worried about being exhausted by Chip Kelly's offense's uptempo approach.

Graham was also blessed with a new addition to his family during the offseason — a baby girl. The 28-year-old admits that changed his perspective as well, making him want to work even harder toward achieving his goals.

"Just the preparation and then the work this offseason, I took it up to another level," Graham said. "I guess because I had a daughter this offseason, everything is kind of viewed a different way for me.

"I know we have a good defense — that helps out a lot, too. I couldn't ask for a better defense right now."

Clearly, those goals are not individually motivated. Graham wants to be part of something great, and with a dominant performance against the Steelers in Week 3, the Eagles and their defense passed a huge test.

"I feel like we improved," Graham said. "We got a lot better. We stopped a good team, a great team, a well-coached team. Our hats off to them because they made us work this week."

Few people were expecting the Eagles to handle a trendy Super Bowl pick the way they did, and Graham actually prefers it that way.

"I hope we still get overlooked because it feels so good when people are talking the way they did," Graham said. "It added a little fuel. We watched a little bit of the TV (Sunday) morning, and they were just saying how [the Steelers] were going to dog us.

"I'm just happy that we came out and did what we were supposed to do, and I hope we stay the underdog because, for us, nobody gave us a chance and we stayed together. If we stay together in here, that's all that matters."

Through three games, the Eagles lead the NFL in fewest points surrendered with a paltry 27 and rank fourth in yards allowed. They're also tied for third with 10 sacks and tied for seventh with six takeaways.

If the defense stays together the way Graham says they have, how far does he think the Eagles go this season?

"I don't know," Graham said. "If we keep playing like that, there is no ceiling."

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Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

The most impressive thing about the Flyers' 4-0 preseason win over the Islanders on Tuesday night was the play of the their young defense and the outstanding work by the penalty kill.

Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers each gave a strong accounting of themselves while veteran Andrew MacDonald proved why experience helps with some terrific PK work during an extended five-on-three Islanders power play in the third period.

“Overall, they did a good job,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I look at some of the opportunities we gave up, especially in the second period, we gave up three or four Grade A opportunities that Mase (goalie Steve Mason) was great on, but I put those on our forwards.

“We’re still not into regular-season form on our play without the puck. I thought as a whole, the group of defensemen did a good job and the young guys in there were good tonight.”

Sanheim had strong plays the entire game from the point and picked up two assists (see highlights). He gets the puck quickly on net and joins the play up front.

“It took me a little bit, even in this game,” Sanheim said. “As I play more, I started to jump up more and you start to see my game more. It’s something I want to bring to this next level.”

Provorov logged 21:43 of ice time following nearly 29 minutes at New Jersey. He had 5:17 on the PK. Some of his clears weren’t deep or hard enough, at times, possibly because of fatigue.

He also took a bad boarding hit on Joshua Ho-Sang in the third period that set up an Isles five-on-three power play. It became extended because of a trip call to Myers but MacDonald did yeoman’s work on the extended PK.

Provorov quarterbacks the first-unit man advantage for now until Shayne Gostisbehere joins the crowd. He had some very skillful passes. The Russian can find the seam up the ice on the breakout quickly and had a no-look, hard pass to Nick Cousins in the second period for a quality one-timer on net.

Expect Provorov to handle the second-unit power play during the season, should he make the roster.

The goals
Although the Flyers, using a better NHL lineup, were lacking for offensive chances early against the Isles' "B" squad, they found their way in the final four minutes of the opening period.

First, Dale Weise had one of those pinball goals as a bouncing puck hit a couple of players in the slot, including goalie Chris Gibson, to make it 1-0 during four-on-four play.

That was the Flyers' first goal of preseason in three games. A little more than a minute later, Wayne Simmonds scored off a rebound just as a Flyers power play ended. Simmonds had two goals in the game, including a wrister from the left circle to open the final period.

Smallish (5-foot-7) — but bullish — centerman Andy Miele, a former Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player (Miami-Ohio), made it 3-0, out-battling Thomas Hickey for the rebound of Michael Raffl’s shot.

The shield
Simmonds is wearing a visor for the first time. It’s an experiment for now.

“Everyone is all over me about it,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. It wasn’t too bad tonight. The only thing is trying to track pucks in the sky when you are getting the glare from the lights. A little bit of an adjustment."

He said neither his mother nor girlfriend had pushed him as hard to wear the shield as someone else: “Ron Hextall,” he said flatly. “He gave me a call.”

Because of his tenacious play in the slot where sticks are high and pucks are deflected, a shield makes sense.

“Yeah, I think so, being that front guy and doing work on the PK,” he said. “Getting sticks in lanes like that, the game is really fast and pucks get deflected.

“Sometime you don’t know where they’re going and can’t react to that. Obviously, the shield is good for that."

He added he would wear the shield in a fight, too.

“Every time I fight and someone has a shield on, I’m at a disadvantage so I guess this evens it up,” he said.

Loose pucks
Weise did a nice job sticking up for teammates late during a melee after a Ben Holmstrom crosscheck to linemate Nick Cousins. “It was a bad crosscheck and you’re defending your teammates,” he said. “The ref was in the way and I kind of went overtop him. That’s what I’m about. Guys take liberties on my linemates, I’ll stand up for them.” … Matt Read had just 6:54 ice time through two periods. Fourth-liner Boyd Gordon had more ice time there — 9:39 — but Read finished with 13:55 to Gordon’s 13:41. More than half of Gordon’s ice time was on the penalty kill. … Goalie Steve Mason faced some point-blank chances among the first 17 shots he faced and finished with 23-save shutout.