Drexel's D gives No. 4 Arizona scare in near upset

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Drexel's D gives No. 4 Arizona scare in near upset

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Bruiser Flint has established a national reputation as a defensive mastermind during his 13-year tenure at Drexel.

Wednesday night, that reputation held true as his team held Arizona, the sixth-best shooting team in the country, to just 20 points in the first 20 minutes.

But the best defensive effort No. 4 Arizona has faced all season still wasn’t good enough for Flint’s Dragons as they lost to the Wildcats, 66-62, in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off (see Instant Replay).

After the Wildcats were limited to just six made field goals in the first half, they came alive out of halftime and scored 46 points in the final 20 minutes, more than doubling their first half output.

Drexel guard Chris Fouch assumed the Wildcats had simply come out in the first half and underestimated their opponents.

“They must’ve come out there thinking we weren’t going to be that good, and so we kind of just punched them right in the face, and we wanted to keep it on," he said.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller, a longtime friend of Flint, made sure it was known that was not the case.

“I think the easy storyline in a game like this is to say maybe Arizona overlooked Drexel,” Miller said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth. We watched for five, six, seven days, whatever the length from our last game to tonight. We invested a lot of time watching them, and it became apparent to me that we were in for one heck of a battle.

“And keep in mind one of their starters, their frontcourt players and a real key to their team did not play tonight.”

Arizona didn’t overlook its opponent. The seismic halftime shift came from the single defensive flaw in Drexel’s armor: The Dragons’ big men have a penchant for getting in foul trouble.

Dartaye Ruffin, Drexel’s premier defender in the paint, picked up three fouls in the first half of the game, a crushing blow for the team’s interior defense. With junior forward Kazembe Abif already missing the game with a concussion, the paint opened up for the Wildcats when Flint decided to start the second half with Ruffin on the bench.

It showed. Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski -- a career 7.7 points per game scorer -- dropped 13 of his career-high 15 points in the second half, going 7 for 12 on the night.

His offensive explosion in the final 20 minutes was the driving force behind Arizona’s comeback.

“We kind of came out flat in the first half and we wanted to come out strong in the second half,” Tarczewski said. “Our guards did a great job of getting me the ball. I know I missed a few easy ones early, but they kept getting me the ball and I really owe it to them.”

Flint was visibly irked after the game about the problems his team had keeping Ruffin on the floor.

“You know I want to play good D the whole game,” Flint said. “A big part of the game was Dartaye sat a lot in the second half. [Tarczewski] started making plays, and that was it right there. When [Ruffin] was in the game, it was a different game around the basket, but when he goes out, they hurt us a little bit.

“And not only that, because we’re helping with them, the other guys on the other side of the rim [beat us], too.”

Flint was right -- the entire Wildcats offense jumped on the Dragons’ defensive struggles in the second half. Point guard T.J. McConnell finished with 11 points, nine of which he scored in the second half. Senior guard Nick Johnson scored 12 of his team-high 20 points in the second half. And, of course, Tarczewski came alive.

Yet, the Drexel head coach said he still thought his team did a good job against Miller’s team defensively. In a way, he was right. His team held the Wildcats under 40 percent from the field for the first time all season. They dictated the style in their favor; that is, they made it a defense-oriented game.

Sometimes your best just isn’t enough. And then sometimes your best is in foul trouble.

Villanova's Kpassagnon speaks softly but earns NFL scouts' attention

Villanova's Kpassagnon speaks softly but earns NFL scouts' attention

As the rain poured down on him, the 6-foot-7, 290-pound defensive lineman lumbered off the field at Villanova Stadium, a picture of dripping wet intimidation.

And then he spoke.

“I don’t really like the rain,” the Villanova senior said softly.

Then, he thought about the Wildcats’ trip to freezing South Dakota for a second-round FCS playoff matchup with South Dakota State on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN3).

“I don’t like the cold, either.”

Meet Tanoh Kpassagnon, a quiet, articulate, intellectual business school student who doubles as one of the fiercest football players in Villanova history and a big-time NFL Draft prospect.

“He’s a bit of an anomaly,” Villanova defensive line coach Joe Trainer said. “He almost has that California chill mode to him. One of the first thing I tell scouts is he’s not that alpha male who’s gonna come up and go, ‘Hey, dawg, what’s going on, man?’ He’s going to wow you physically but he’s not gonna come out of his skin with personality. A lot of times people initially mistake that for softness but he definitely has an understated toughness and hardness about him that has served him well.”

It’s also served Villanova well as the No. 9 Wildcats rode their gentle giant to an 8-3 regular-season record, their sixth playoff berth in nine years and an opening-round 31-21 win over Saint Francis last week.

One of the top defensive players in the Football Championship Subdivision, Kpassagnon was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year and recently earned an invite to January’s Reese’s Senior Bowl. He led the league in the regular season with 19 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, while adding two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one blocked kick and a touchdown.

And his stock may continue to rise with a good performance in Saturday’s Top 10 showdown against No. 7 South Dakota State.

“It’s more TV time, just showing we’re good as a team,” he said when asked about the extra playoff exposure. “I was just talking to the Sauce Squad — that’s what we call the defensive line — about our goals for the year and we had nothing except a national championship on our mind. That’s something that’s been ingrained in our minds, and we’re gonna do everything we can right now in order to reach it.”

The fact that Kpassagnon quickly turned the attention from himself to the team is indicative of how he’s handled his growing reputation around the country. According to Trainer, scouts from every NFL team have been to a Villanova practice or game at least twice this year with most teams coming three times. There have even been four or five NFL general managers at Villanova Stadium to see Kpassagnon, who retiring head coach Andy Talley has called “probably the greatest player we’ve ever had” in his 32 years at the helm.

But while calling the presence of scouts “nice,” Kpassagnon also said he “doesn’t really think about it too much” — at least not until the season ends.

“He’s a very grounded guy,” Trainer said. “The greatest compliment I can give him in terms of non-measurables is he’s as consistent of a player as I’ve ever been around. I mean that not in a performance standpoint but in a life standpoint. A lot of times young kids today are really high and then really low. He’s just steady as the day is long, and he takes everything in stride. His mom and dad have done a great job with him.” 

It’s also because of his parents, both of whom originally hail from Africa, that Kpassagnon isn’t laser focused on the NFL. His mother is a chemical scientist and his father an economist and both stressed education above sports. He never even watched any sports as a kid and didn’t begin playing football until the sixth grade.

Later, he morphed into a three-sport star at Wissahickon High, playing basketball and running track on top of his blossoming football career. But he never took his eyes off the books. A finance major with minors in accounting and entrepreneurship in the Villanova School of Business, he already has four job offers to go along with very good grades. And he likes to study the game of football too, taking pride in maybe finding things that others can’t on film.

“They have a highly skilled backfield but I’ve been paying attention to their line mostly, trying to see their tendencies, trying to see if they have any tells,” Kpassagnon said of the South Dakota State offense. “I think I picked up on a couple.”

He laughed, then added: “I’ll keep that a secret for now.”

No matter what happens Saturday in South Dakota, it’s clear that the secret on Kpassagnon is out. And judging by how much he’s been scouted — and his place on several mock drafts — it’s not a question of if he gets drafted but what round.

“I think he’s the best prospect that this league has ever had in all of my time here,” said Trainer, who coached at Villanova from 1997 to 2004 before becoming the head coach at Millersville and then Rhode Island, returning to ’Nova in 2014. “He’s a special talent whose best football is ahead of him. And he’s not even close to his ceiling.”

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova- St. Joe's headlines packed City 6 weekend

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova- St. Joe's headlines packed City 6 weekend

CSN anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and producer Sean Kane get you set for all of the weekend's local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

Saint Joseph's (3-3) at #2 Villanova (7-0), Saturday 1 p.m.
SK
: Villanova has been very impressive in the early stages of the season. The defending national champions are a perfect 7-0, winning their games by an average of nearly 18 points. The senior duo of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins is leading the way - combining for 31 points per game.

Following Villanova's 25-point win at Penn on Tuesday, Jay Wright referred to Hart and Jenkins as 'special guys'. There's no doubting how special their accomplishments have been to this point. Everyone remembers the Wildcats' national championship run last spring, during which Hart and Jenkins played central roles. But the numbers run deeper than that. The Villanova seniors have amassed a 104-13 career record, winning 89 percent of their games. 

Hart, Jenkins and fellow senior Darryl Reynolds have never lost a Big 5 game and have never lost a game at the Pavilion. Those are remarkable accomplishments, and ones that spell trouble for St. Joe's given that Saturday's 'Holy War' is both a Big 5 game and at the Pavilion.

Phil Martelli's team has dropped three straight after starting the season 3-0. To be fair, those losses were to three quality opponents in Ole Miss, NC State and Temple. The Hawks' backcourt duo of Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble has proven capable of filling out the boxscore. Newkirk is averaging 35.3 minutes, 21.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists on the young season, while Kimble has been good for 36.0 minutes, 14.3 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds. 

The Hawks' backcourt will be tested against Villanova's defensive pressure, which is relentless both in the halfcourt and in their vaunted three-quarter court press. St. Joe's has struggled against their archrival in recent years. The Hawks haven't beaten Villanova since 2011, losing the last four meetings by an average of 19 points.

This will be another win for Villanova, who could once again be without Phil Booth. The junior guard has missed the last four games with left knee tendonitis (it's the same knee Booth had arthroscopic surgery on in the offseason). Wright is on the record saying the injury isn't serious and Booth is listed as questionable for Saturday's game. The Wildcats have managed to survive without Booth, but they're going to need him to accomplish their goals later in the season.

Without Booth, Wright has been going with a 7-man rotation featuring Jalen Brunson as the primary ballhandler. Brunson is more than capable, but Booth's presence relieves a lot of pressure and responsibility from his shoulders.

Villanova 81, St. Joseph's 65    

Penn (2-3) at Temple (5-2), Saturday 4 p.m.
AF: Both of these teams are coming off Big 5 games, though only one earned a win in the city's annual series. The Quakers welcomed the defending national champs to the Palestra Tuesday, and Villanova marched out of the historic building with a dominant 25-point win. Penn only saw three players post double figures, which is not going to win you many games against that level of talent.

Jackson Donahue, though, is showing why he is an early favorite for team MVP. In 23 minutes of work against Nova, Donahue scored 12 points on 4-11 shooting. The problem? Check that line: all 11 of his shots, and all four of his makes were from three-point territory. Talk about borrowing a motto from Jay Wright, shoot 'em up or sleep in the streets. Coach Steve Donahue probably appreciates Jackson Donahue's shooting stroke (no relation - which I know we've told you before), but I'm guessing he's going to want his guard to vary his shot selection just a bit.

Temple meanwhile is coming off quite the run of games. The Owls earned two wins over top 25 ranked teams to claim the NIT Season Tip-Off. Then they followed it up by beating rival Saint Joseph's on Wednesday night.  Obi Enechionyia is the main man for Fran Dunphy. He's doing everything for the Owls, averaging 21 points and 8.4 rebounds a game in 36 minutes of play. He was the leading returning scorer and the junior forward is picking up where he left off. 

The big plus for big Obi is that at his size, he's more than just a viable three-point threat, he's an actual sniper from beyond the arc. Enechionyia shoots better than 50 percent from the field, and nearly 55 percent from three, and it's not like he's only taken a handful of shots from that range. Obi leads Temple with 24 makes on 44 triples attempted. You can't underestimate the versatility of having a 6-10 forward be that accurate from long range. 

If you ask Fran Dunphy, this is always a hard game for him, given his success at and affinity for Penn. But that doesn't mean he doesn't want the win just as much.  The Owls start 3-0 in the Big 5. 

Temple 77, Penn 68

Bucknell (6-2) at La Salle (3-2), Saturday 2 p.m.
SK
: La Salle completes a Patriot League double-dip with a Saturday afternoon visit from Bucknell. The Explorers beat a very good Lehigh team earlier this week and they'll face another stiff challenge from Bucknell. The Bison's only losses this season are at Wake Forest and at No. 18 Butler.

The city isn't lacking for dynamic duos with Villanova's Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins as well as St. Joe's Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble. You can officially add La Salle's Jordan Price and B.J. Johnson to that list. Price and Johnson were terrific against Lehigh on Wednesday, combining for 48 points in a 89-81 win.

Price was a one-man show at times last season but help has officially arrived in the form of Johnson. The Syracuse transfer has paid immediate dividends, averaging 18 points and 5 rebounds in the Explorers' first five games. Johnson is shooting 52 percent from the field, 48 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the foul line.

La Salle will need another big effort from Price and Johnson to beat Bucknell. The Bison are led by versatile junior forward Zach Thomas, who has been good for 17.1 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting nearly 46 percent from long range. Bucknell is well coached and always plays hard.

It will take a 'A-plus' outing from La Salle to win this game, and I think the Explorers deliver. 

La Salle 75, Bucknell 70

Drexel (3-4) at High Point (4-3), Saturday 7 p.m.
AF: The Dragons have righted the ship a bit to start their season, winning three of their last five. Drexel picked up a four-point road win at Lafayette earlier this week. Zach Spiker's team found themselves down 14 points at the break in Easton, Pa., scoring only 24 points in the first half. But the Dragons stormed back, more than doubling that output in the second half and shooting over 58 percent with 50 points in the 74-70 win. Not getting off to a slow start is something I'm sure Spiker is drilling into his team, especially on the road as they are again this weekend.

Kurk Lee leads the way for the Dragons at 16 points a game and dishing out four assists per contest. Sammy Mojica is his usual stat-stuffing self, but I'm waiting for him to really hit his scoring stride and get over the 12 points a game threshold. Another player I'm waiting to find his stroke is Miles Overton. It's been a learning process for the transfer, but I think it will come.

High Point is not a high scoring team but they have a good scorer in Andre Fox. The sophomore averages just over 17 points a game, and can shoot the three with some reliability. I think these two teams actually match up quite well. They both have pretty good defenses, a few consistent scorers and slow starts to games.

The one thing that Drexel holds over High Point is the veterans. There are more junior and senior contributors on the Dragons roster, but playing under a new head coach, it sometimes doesn't feel like they are veteran college players. Spiker's team is still learning to play under him and his style, I think this could be a chance for a big road win for this team.

Drexel 71, High Point 69

Prediction Records
Amy Fadool: 4-1
Sean Kane: 3-3