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.

Temple vs. SMU: Get ready for offensive firepower in AAC opener

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Temple vs. SMU: Get ready for offensive firepower in AAC opener

Temple (2-2, 0-0 AAC) vs. SMU (2-2, 0-0 AAC)
Lincoln Financial Field
Saturday, Noon, ESPNews

If recent history tells us anything, we should expect to see some crooked numbers on Lincoln Financial Field’s scoreboard Saturday afternoon when SMU visits Temple in the conference opener for each team.

The last two times these AAC programs have met, the final scores have wound up 59-49 (a SMU win in Dallas in 2013) and 60-40 (a Temple win in Dallas last season).

Temple is coming off a 48-20 homecoming demolition of Charlotte. The game was basically over early in the second quarter, a frame in which the Owls scored 28 points to blow away the 49ers. SMU is coming off a 33-3 home loss to in-state rival TCU. The Mustangs hung tough for the first half and the score was 6-3 at the break, but the Big 12 powerhouse Horned Frogs took over in the second half.

Weather could play a factor Saturday, though, as current forecasts call for a chance of scattered thunderstorms in the Philadelphia area all afternoon.

Let’s take a closer look at Saturday’s the matchup.

Scouting Temple
The Owls’ offense has been in a much-needed groove since the second half of the narrow loss at Penn State two weeks ago.

Last week, Walker went 15 of 26 for 268 yards and two touchdowns – a 51-yard bomb to Adonis Jennings and a 40-yard quick strike to Brodrick Yancy. On the season, Walker has completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 846 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions. His favorite target has been Keith Kirkwood, who has 14 grabs for 191 yards and two touchdowns through four games.

It should be no coincidence that Temple’s offensive revival has come with the return of star senior running back Jahad Thomas, who missed the first two games of the year with a dislocated left thumb. In the two games Thomas has played, he’s got 127 yards on the ground and four touchdowns. Sophomore Ryquell Armstead, who also has four rushing scores, leads the Owls with 166 yards on the ground. Last year against SMU, then-freshman Jager Gardner ripped off a school-record 94-yard touchdown run.

One other offensive note: Temple head coach Matt Rhule was finally pleased with his offensive line after the way it played against Charlotte. Earlier this week, he praised offensive line coach George DeLeone and the job he’s done recently trying to get work out the issues on the line. The Owls didn’t give up a sack last week. True freshman Matt Hennessy started at left guard last week while redshirt sophomore Jaelin Robinson saw time at right tackle. Don’t be surprised if they see significant playing time again.

Two things have concerned Rhule defensively – a lackluster pass rush and the tendency to give up big plays.

Through four games, the Owls have yet to establish any sort of consistent pass rush. They have just four sacks through four games. They had 10 in last year’s opener against Penn State alone. The good news for Temple’s pass rush is that SMU starts a freshman QB and his given up nine sacks through four games, so opportunities to disrupt the pocket should be there on Saturday.

Temple’s defense has allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage this season, including a 66-yard touchdown run by Charlotte’s Kalif Phillips last week.

Injury-wise, the Owls are relatively healthy. Sophomore wideout Ventell Bryant, who was believed to be dealing with a shoulder injury, announced on his Instagram this week that he’d been cleared to play.

Scouting SMU
The Mustangs’ rebuilding efforts took a big hit during the first game of the season when senior quarterback Matt Davis, who played very well against Temple last season and hurt the Owls with both his arm and legs, was lost for the year with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Ben Hicks has stepped in and his tenure so far hasn’t been so hot. He’s completed just 50 percent of his passes this year and has thrown just two touchdowns compared to seven picks.

Despite the inexperience and lack of production at quarterback, SMU will still push the tempo with a fast-paced offense that can rip off chunks of yardage instantly and averages 448 yards per game. A big reason for that is the play of sophomore wideout Cortland Sutton, who has 449 receiving yards and four touchdowns already this season. Sutton, whom Rhule had very high praise for earlier this week, averages 24.9 yards per reception. Sophomore tailback Braeden West is no slouch, either. He’s averaged 93.8 yards per game on the ground this season and has two rushing touchdowns.

Defensively, SMU has a couple of ballhawks in its secondary. The Mustangs are tied for tops in the nation with 10 interceptions through four games. Sophomore corner Jordan Wyatt is tied for the team lead in picks with three and also leads the Mustangs with 25 total tackles and two forced fumbles. Walker will have to be wary of where Wyatt is at on the field. Senior Horace Richardson also has three picks already for the Mustangs.

While SMU’s takeaway numbers are pretty, the Mustangs’ total defense numbers are ugly. They give up an average of 449.8 yards per game, which ranks 98th out of 128 teams in the FBS. The 27 points the Mustangs allow per game are good 70th in the FBS.

History
Saturday will mark the third meeting between the schools in the last four years and fifth overall. As mentioned above, the two teams combined for 208 points the last two times they’ve met. Those last two meetings have been the only meetings between Temple and SMU that have had definitive finals. They tied in both 1942 (6-6) and 1947 (7-7). So feel free to call Saturday’s game a rubber match.

Storyline to watch: Second test for Temple's secondary
Thus far this season, Temple has faced a triple-option team in Army, an FCS team in Stony Brook, a weapon-filled offense in Penn State and a second-year FBS team in Charlotte. Needless to say, Penn State was the only true test Temple's defense, specifically the new-look secondary, has had to face and it didn't go so well, especially in the first half when the Nittany Lions tore the Owls apart with slant plays for huge chunks of yardage. While the Owls' defense calmed down, the Nittany Lions still finished with 287 passing yards and 403 total yards. Temple's secondary will have its next test on Saturday with Sutton and SMU's receivers. Corners Derrek Thomas, Artrel Foster and Nate Hairston and safety Delvon Randall have a prime opportunity to gain more confidence against a young quarterback with a tendency to make mistakes. Junior safety Sean Chandler is still the unquestioned leader of the group.

What’s at stake: Getting conference play started on the right foot
If the Owls want to be taken as a serious threat to repeat in the AAC East, this is a game they have to have against an inferior SMU team. This is the first of nine straight AAC games, and even though SMU is in the AAC West, this game is still a tonesetter for rest of conference play. The Owls don’t want to fall behind right off the bat. And they really don’t want to fall behind right of the bat this week, with a short week and travel to Memphis for a game on Thursday looming. Yes, that’s two games in five days coming up for Temple.

Prediction
Even if the weather doesn’t hold out, points will be scored at the Linc on Saturday. Just not as many as the past couple of years. At this point in time, Temple just has more talent and it looks like the Owls are finally getting things in sync. Temple 38, SMU 21

No. 12 Villanova at Elon: Wildcats eager for CAA road win

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No. 12 Villanova at Elon: Wildcats eager for CAA road win

No. 17 Villanova (3-1, 1-0) at Elon (2-2, 1-0)
Rhodes Stadium, Elon, N.C.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Climbing in the national rankings, Villanova looks for its fourth straight win this weekend in a road CAA contest. Here’s a look at the matchup:

Scouting Villanova
After a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, the Wildcats have won three straight, including a 31-14 rout of Lafayette last week. The Wildcats’ defense continued to flex its muscle in that victory with senior defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon scoring on a 25-yard fumble return to go along with his two sacks and sophomore linebacker Jeff Steeb returning an interception 45 yards for a TD. For the season, Villanova’s defense has now scored four touchdowns in four games while its rushing defense ranks 21st in the country, allowing just over 100 yards per game. Offensively, running backs Aaron Forbes and Javon White formed a nice tandem last week with both scoring and Forbes running for a career-high 111 yards on 11 carries.

Scouting Elon
The Phoenix bounced back from two straight losses to start the year with a home rout of Fayetteville State and a massive 27-10 road win over nationally ranked William & Mary last week. Just its second victory over over a top-10 FCS program, Elon was led by a 120-yard, two-TD rushing game from Malcolm Summers and an opportunistic defense that intercepted three passes. Elon does have some question marks offensively with several underclassmen in prominent roles, including sophomore Daniel Thompson, who took over for the injured Connor Christiansen at quarterback after the first game. But Elon’s passing offense still ranks third in the CAA with 206.5 yards per game.

Series history
This will be Villanova’s first-ever game vs. Elon, which joined the CAA in 2014.

Storyline to watch
Kpassagnon, an NFL prospect, was the biggest reason why Villanova extended its winning streak to three, putting all kinds of pressure on Lafayette and setting the tone by scoring a defensive touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. He’ll have a chance to do that again and try to rattle a young quarterback early. And he may need to have another big game in what figures to be a low-scoring affair between two hot defenses.

What’s at stake?
Elon and Villanova are among six teams that are 1-0 in the conference, meaning the winner of this game could rise to the top of the conference after just two games.

Prediction
Elon’s win last week was very impressive, but it seems unlikely that this young Phoenix squad can knock off two nationally ranked teams in a row. Villanova 24, Elon 14.