City 6 NCAA tourney outlook: It's a mess

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City 6 NCAA tourney outlook: It's a mess

Wow -- what a mess.

With a little more than a month left in the college basketball season, five of the City 6 team's tournament hopes remain alive, although none can be considered a sure thing and some are further out of the picture than others.

To start, the A-10 is the strongest its been in years, but its parity from top to bottom is doing more to hamper records than to bolster anyone's resume. League play is looking like a war of attrition, leaving the conference tournament and the A-10's number of NCAA bids wide open. Half of the teams in the league could be considered in the tournament or on the bubble, and there isn't enough room for all of them. The A-10, which currently has the seventh-highest conference RPI in the nation, has sent four teams to the dance twice within the last decade, most recently last year, but never any more after 1998 and typically only one to three. 

Then there's Villanova and Drexel, both of whom could take advantage of their respective conferences to find itself dancing, albeit for different reasons.

We'll open with the A-10 teams and go from there. But remember -- you were told the whole picture was a mess, especially with five weeks left. All RPI and SOS numbers courtesy realtimerpi.com.

La Salle Explorers (15-6, 5-3 A-10)

RPI: 31, SOS: 32
Key wins: Butler, VCU
Key losses: Central Connecticut State

Behind senior-transfer Ramon Galloway and junior point guard Tyreek Duren, La Salle appears to have finally taken that next step under head coach John Giannini. Unlike last year -- when the Explorers took advantage of a weak out-of-conference schedule but couldn't close games against better opponents -- La Salle built on its early-season success to knock off two ranked teams in the same week.

La Salle currently owns the second-highest RPI and SOS in the A-10, behind only Butler. The loss to Central Connecticut State was early enough in the year to be overcome, especially with wins vs. Butler and at VCU so fresh in the mind.

Their remaining eight games are split between four that should be easy enough (vs. Fordham, at Rhode Island, vs. Duquesne, vs. George Washington) and four that could cement or chip away at their tournament resume (at St. Bonaventure, vs. St. Joe's, at Temple, at St. Louis).

At the moment, they're in solid shape heading into the A-10 tournament -- one of five teams within a game or less of conference-leader VCU -- but there are enough landmines left to have them fighting for their season in Brooklyn along with the everyone else. You'll notice that's a theme that extends to the other two A-10 teams as well.

Temple (14-7, 3-4 A-10)

RPI: 49, SOS: 60
Key wins: Syracuse, Villanova
Key losses: Canisius, St. Bonaventure

The team that beat No. 3 Syracuse and almost beat No. 4 Kansas also lost to two inferior teams on its own home floor. Temple has struggled all year to produce a consistent effort, peaking and rising, usually, when the opponent merits it.

Five or their seven losses (Duke, Kansas, Xavier, Butler, St. Joe's) are of the good or acceptable variety, but the Canisius and Bonaventure games hurt both their resume and their win-loss record as conference play continues on. If Temple was 16-5 right now, instead of 14-7, the Owls would be able to stomach a few more tough losses in regular season play.

Instead, they have 10 games left to steady themselves. Their two key games remaining are against La Salle on Feb. 21 and VCU on the final day of the season. It will be easy to focus on those matchups, but Temple has to make sure it wins the other games it's supposed to. One or two more letdowns and the Owls will become just another part of a mad scramble in Brooklyn, in serious danger of missing the NCAAs for the first time in six seasons.

Exercising better shot selection (32.3 percent on 21.4 attempts from three per game) and cleaning up their defense could help.

Saint Joseph's (13-7, 4-3 A-10)

RPI: 79, SOS: 103
Key wins: Notre Dame, Temple
Key losses: Fairfield, St. Bonaventure

You're supposed to lose in Olean and beat the Bonnies at home. Both Temple and St. Joe's missed that memo.

Picked as the preseason favorite to win the A-10, St. Joe's ran into its fiercest competition early and lost close games to both VCU and Butler, games it simply couldn't close late.

The importance of this year's A-10 tournament has already been stressed, but here's why. In the 16-team conference, St. Joe's (4-3) sits behind or is tied with eight other teams, and it doesn't have the kind of key wins Temple and La Salle do over Top 10 opponents. Three difficult games remain on the Hawks' schedule (UMass, La Salle, St. Louis) and that's why coach Phil Martelli said Saturday night, after their win over Temple, that they were only allowed to enjoy themselves until 8:30 Monday morning.

They may not have a deep bench, but Kanacevic, Roberts and Aiken can -- and really should -- prove an inside-out matchup nightmare on a nightly basis. St. Joe's hasn't lived up to its preseason press, but it's always better to peak late than early.

As Martelli put it Saturday night: "There are no nights off. Rhode Island led Butler today at the half. ... We were out of the Atlantic 10 tournament a couple games ago. ... Now we can see the top of the league. Why not keep going?"

Villanova (13-9, 4-5 Big East)

RPI: 54, SOS: 21
Key wins: Lousiville, Syracuse
Key losses: Columbia, Providence (twice)

Will the real Villanova please stand up? Jay Wright's Wildcats knocked off Top-5 opponents in back-to-back games. Of course, those are Villanova's only two wins in its last seven games.

No matter what Wright says about his Wildcats not being fazed by their parade of turnovers, they have to stop giving the ball away. Villanova's 16 turnovers per game ties them with Florida Gulf Coast, UAB, Marshall, Southern Miss and Fordham for the 29th-most giveaways per game out of 347 Division I programs.

The good news: their SOS is high -- really high -- as a result of their Big East schedule. The wins over Louisville and Syracuse got them some Top 25 votes, but two losses to Providence, including one at the buzzer on Sunday, evidence a Villanova team that's still too erratic to win enough games in a conference like the Big East.

Sunday's loss didn't seal their fate, but it made the Wildcats' history-making week seem less like a statement and more like a happy accident.

The remainder of their schedule includes DePaul, USF, No. 17 Cinncinati, UConn, Rutgers, No. 24 Marquette, Seton Hall, Pitt and Georgetown, which should keep their RPI and SOS high. Our own Reuben Frank summed up the 'Cats future prospects nicely: "Villanova needs wins. Probably 20, including the conference tournament in New York, to reach the NCAA tournament."

Drexel (9-13, 5-5 CAA)

RPI: 193, SOS: 167
Key wins: None
Key losses: None

It's strange to think that Drexel stands as equal a chance of making the tournament this year as it did last year -- when it went 27-6 and wound up in the NIT -- but such is life in the CAA.

With Georgia State and ODU on the way out the door, and UNC-Wilmington and Towson academically ineligible, the 2013 CAA tournament will feature just seven teams.

The Dragons are without their best shooter, Chris Fouch, but they've acquitted themselves well in two losses to Northeastern (14-8, 9-1), who sits atop at the conference.

They don't have a single win against a team in the RPI Top-100, but it won't matter if they can find a way to win three in a row at the CAA tournament in Richmond.

Penn (4-16, 1-2)

RPI: 292, SOS: 172
Key wins: None
Key losses: Every one in league play

I don't mean to harp on a Penn team that's played better than its record at times this season. But Jerome Allen's team is too young, too raw and probably already too far behind. Unless they run the table the rest of the way in the Ivy ... nevermind.

La Salle suffers demoralizing loss to struggling UMass

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La Salle suffers demoralizing loss to struggling UMass

AMHERST, Mass. -- Zach Lewis scored a career-high 37 points, including six three-pointers, and Massachusetts pulled away from La Salle 84-71 on Sunday to snap a three-game losing streak.

Lewis, whose 37-point effort was the best for any player in the Atlantic 10 this season, hit nine of his 16 field goal attempts overall and was a perfect 13-for-13 at the free throw line. Dejon Jarreau added 20 points and four three-ponters for UMass (14-15, 4-12).

Pookie Powell hit five 3-pointers and scored 24 points, and B.J. Johnson added 20 points to lead La Salle (14-13, 8-8).

Both teams shot similar percentages and had similar three-point totals, but the Minutemen finished with a plus-14 advantage at the free throw line.

La Salle remained within striking distance but a 13-4 stretch for UMass midway through the second half pushed its lead to 63-51. The Minutemen kept the Explorers at arm's length the rest of the way.

Eric Paschall's game rounding out when Villanova needs it most

Eric Paschall's game rounding out when Villanova needs it most

Those on the outside are now starting to see what those on the inside of Villanova basketball program have seen for the last year and a half.

Eric Paschall can play.

Paschall on Saturday had the biggest game of his career – at least his Villanova career – with 19 points, six rebounds and two steals in the Wildcats’ Big East-clinching win over Creighton at the Pavilion.

With Darryll Reynolds sidelined since early February with a rib injury, the Fordham transfer has been starting and playing at a high level. But he was at his best on Saturday when his team needed him the most.

Paschall was essentially a guard at Fordham, but with Reynolds out and Omari Spellman forced to sit out the year, Paschall has been playing a lot of the 5 for Villanova, and against Creighton, he effectively neutralized 6-foot-11 Blue Jays center Justin Patton, who managed just four points – 9 ½ below his average.

“He’s getting better, that’s the biggest thing,” teammate Josh Hart said of Paschall. “He’s down there battling with Patton, a 7-footer, he’s down there battling with 6-10, 6-11 guys just about every night, and he’s battling and battling and we just tell him, keep working like that. That’s more important to us than him going out there scoring 20.

“We know he’s talented enough to score 20, you saw that (Saturday), but the way he’s battling and the way he’s not being frustrated and just keeps getting better, for us that’s the best part.”

Paschall averaged 15.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game two years ago for the Rams, earning Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year honors.

He was one of only three NCAA Division I freshmen who averaged at least 15.9 points and 5 ½ rebounds per game. The others were D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State and Jahlil Okafor of Duke, who are both now double-digit scorers in the NBA.

But to play at Villanova, you have to play defense, and that’s where Paschall has shown the most improvement.

“Eric is developing as a Villanova basketball player defensively in terms of executing far better than anyone knows,” coach Jay Wright said. “We know. When he’s in the game, we are executing at a high level. We’re just starting to see what he can do offensively, but in our program, you’ve got to be able to (play defense) first and he’s been doing that all year.

“(He’s) getting better and better, and today you just saw a glimpse of what you’ll probably see next year, but you’ve got to get the basics down first, which he’s done an incredible job of this year. It’s like I tell you with Dante (DiVincenzo), these guys play against him in practice, they’re not surprised when they see him do that, but I know everybody else is, because they don’t get to see it all the time.”

It’s not easy to transfer into a new program and get used to new players, a new coach, a new system, a new philosophy.

“It was a process,” Paschall said. “The biggest thing was getting used to what they wanted, and that’s defense and rebounding. That took some getting used to, but once I understood what they were looking for from me and what they wanted me to do, that just made it easy.

“The guys welcomed me with open arms. It’s a brotherhood here and we’re all brothers and they made me feel like I was a part of it from Day 1. It can be hard sometimes as a transfer coming in, but they made it easy. It’s just a matter of focusing on my job.”

Overall, Paschall is averaging 7.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game and shooting 50 percent from the field in an average of 21 minutes a night. But during these last five starts, he’s 21 for 32 from the field (66 percent) and is averaging 9.8 points per game.

“Eric, he came in knowing what coach wanted, knowing what coach’s philosophy is and how coach wants things, and he’s come and in done what’s expected,” Jalen Brunson said.

“He’s done a great job for us and we’re extremely confident in him. It’s hard coming in front a different school, coming in and learning a new system, learning the philosophy, but he’s done a good job.”

Paschall can play the 2 through the 5, so he gives Wright a lot of versatility.

His 19 points Saturday were his most as a Wildcat and his most in any game since he scored 21 for Fordham vs. George Mason on Feb. 18, 2015.

When asked about his role, he just pointed at Hart and Kris Jenkins.

“Just listen to these guys, making sure I have my head clear every game,” he said. “They do a great job of telling me what to do during the games and having my attitude right during the games so I can just go out there play hard, play together, play smart, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

As thin as Villanova is – Wright has played just six guys in his regular rotation since Reynolds got hurt – Paschall has been a life-saver.

It’s hard not to imagine how talented Villanova will be next year with Spellman, Paschall, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, Brunson and DiVincenzo.

But first there's a game Saturday against Georgetown, the Big East Tournament in New York and then the NCAA Tournament.

“We see him getting better every day with his decision making,” Hart said of Paschall. “Last year he definitely kicked our butt a lot when he was on the scout team.

“One thing we always had a question about was how was he going to fit in with just playing hard the way we play defense, and he’s doing the best job, and he keeps getting better, and seeing him develop and seeing him grow has been amazing. Looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do in the future.”