City 6 NCAA tourney outlook: It's a mess


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

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.

After beating Ohio State, Penn State ranked for 1st time since 2011

After beating Ohio State, Penn State ranked for 1st time since 2011

After its signature win over Ohio State on Saturday night, Penn State finds itself ranked for the first time since 2011.

The Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) are ranked No. 24 in the latest AP poll. The Lions stunned the Buckeyes, 24-21, on Saturday in a White Out at Beaver Stadium (see game story).

With the loss, Ohio State drops from No. 2 in the country to No. 6 (see full poll).

While head coach James Franklin sidestepped the signature win question after the game (see story), there is no question the Ohio State win is one that has been lacking in the Franklin era at State College. Even junior cornerback Grant Haley, who scored the go-ahead, 60-yard touchdown off a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter, believes it was much-needed too.

“It’s just a game that put Penn State back on the map," Haley said. "We needed that signature win, and we did it tonight."

Penn State heads to Purdue next Saturday for a noon kickoff against the Boilermakers.

Penn State's signature win over Ohio State has it feeling it's back on map

Penn State's signature win over Ohio State has it feeling it's back on map

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – In another day and time, the late John Facenda — the voice of NFL Films and the very “Voice of God,” as he came to be known — described Marcus Allen “running with the night” while scoring a particularly memorable touchdown for the Raiders in a Super Bowl victory over Washington.

On Saturday, another Marcus Allen went soaring into the night, not to mention Penn State lore.

A blocked field goal by the Nittany Lions’ junior safety resulted in a go-ahead 60-yard TD return by teammate Grant Haley, as PSU upset No. 2 Ohio State in Beaver Stadium, 24-21 (see story). That led to the team’s fans, dressed appropriately for a White Out, to storm the field, and led to the kind of emotions that hadn’t been felt on campus in a long, long time.

“This is for everybody,” coach James Franklin said.

The Langhorne native talked about the game being “a big step in the right direction” as far as healing a community wounded by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal. He talked, with tears in his eyes, about the death of his brother-in-law four days earlier.

Yet he didn’t wish to discuss whether it was the kind of signature victory he needed to propel the program back toward prominence (or, for that matter, ensure his job security).

“That’s for you (media) guys, all that signature stuff,” he said, adding that he “didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the big picture.”

Rather, he said, “I just want to enjoy tonight.”

Understandable, since the Lions, 5-2 after their third straight victory this season, beat a ranked team for the first time since 2013 (No. 14 Wisconsin), beat a team ranked in the top five for the first time since 1999 (No. 4 Arizona) and earned a victory over their highest-ranked opponent since knocking off No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990.

PSU also snapped a 20-game road winning streak on the part of the Buckeyes (7-1). Seventeen of those victories had come in Big Ten play.

Few people saw it coming, though middle linebacker Jason Cabinda said that amid a sleepless Friday night at the team hotel, he and his roommate, fellow ‘backer Manny Bowen, allowed themselves to dream.

“We were just talking about how great it would be to pull this off,” he said, “and how we believed we could pull this off, and how it would be like writing history.”

It was already etched upon the pages of Brandon Bell’s mind.

“This was no fluke,” the senior linebacker said. “This is what we train for. This is what we go out there and play for. Obviously everybody is (saying) we shocked the world, but this is what you expect. Or what I expect.”

Bell, playing for the first time since the season’s second week because of a leg injury, had a career-high 19 tackles and one of his team’s six sacks. Cabinda, playing for the first time since the opener because of a hand injury, had 12 tackles and a sack of his own. Bowen added 11 stops, and defensive end Garrett Sickels, suspended for the first half for violating a team rule, had career highs of nine tackles, 3½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks.

“Maybe,” Franklin said, “I should suspend him for the first half for the season.”

With Cabinda and Bell back, the Lions were more aggressive on defense than they had been, more varied. Yet the game seemed to be getting away from them when Ohio State built a 21-7 lead through three quarters.

J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes’ splendid quarterback, had thrown for one touchdown, Curtis Samuel had busted off a 71-yard run for another and PSU’s repeated special-teams blunders (a blocked field goal, a fumbled punt and a bad snap on a punt) had left the Lions staring up at a team that had won its previous 78 games when leading by 14 points or more in the fourth quarter.

OSU had, however, been extended to overtime the previous weekend at Wisconsin, while PSU had a bye, two things that might very well have contributed to all that happened next. You had Lions QB Trace McSorley capping a brisk 90-yard drive with a scoring run early in the final period. And freshman linebacker Cam Brown blocking a punt (even though the block wasn’t on) to set up Tyler Davis’ field goal, cutting the gap to 21-17 with 9:33 left.

Then Allen blocked Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt as well, the first time since 2007 the Lions had rejected two kicks in the same game. Haley collected the rebound and set sail down the left sideline.

Durbin and holder Cameron Johnston gave chase, and Johnston, the punter, closed the gap on Haley, one of the fastest guys on Penn State’s team.

“I told him, ‘If you would have gotten caught by the kicker I never would have let you live that down,’” McSorley said.

Never mind that — Haley admitted he would have never forgiven himself.

He managed to make it the distance, though, and after Ohio State’s final drive ended with a pair of sacks, PSU had the victory.

When the gun sounded several Lions sprinted toward the student section at the south end of the stadium and performed their own version of the Lambeau Leap. And as the fans spilled out onto the field, two male spectators turned to each other high up in the west stands.

“We’re back in business,” one said to the other.

That seemed to be the feeling in the locker room, too.

“It’s just a game that put Penn State back on the map,” Haley said. “We needed that signature win, and we did it tonight.”

All because Marcus Allen soared, and took everyone else along with him.