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.

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

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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."