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.