Fastbreak Friday: Another test for Villanova & La Salle

Fastbreak Friday: Another test for Villanova & La Salle
January 25, 2013, 12:30 pm
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Our resident college basketball junkies – CSN producers Brian Brennan and Sean Kane – make their predictions for this weekend's games City 6 teams. Look for Fastbreak Friday on CSNPhilly.com each Friday for the remainder of the season.

No. 3 Syracuse (18-1) at Villanova (12-7)  - Saturday, 11 a.m.

BB: "We can beat anybody." That's what Jay Wright said the day after Villanova upset No. 5 Louisville at the Wells Fargo Center. The Wildcats showed no fear right from the start against Louisville, playing with a tremendous amount of poise and swagger for a young team. When freshman Daniel Ochefu threw down an emphatic dunk to give Villanova a 20-11 lead, you got the idea that an upset might be brewing. And when Louisville inevitably made a run to go up six with under nine minutes left, the Wildcats didn't just swing back, they hit the Cardinals with a haymaker. Seven different Villanova players scored in a game-ending 27-12 run, leading to a well-deserved court-storming by the student body.

Now the Wildcats can cap off an incredible few days in Philadelphia college basketball with a third top-10 upset this week (yes, La Salle beating Butler was an upset). We know Villanova can hang with Syracuse because the Wildcats led the Orange at halftime two weeks ago at the Carrier Dome. In fact, it was still a four-point game with eight minutes left, but three Villanova turnovers contributed to a 12-0 Syracuse run that sealed the Wildcats' fate. My guess is that Syracuse won't be able to pull away this time around. Ultimately, I think the Orange will still prevail. But this one will go down to the wire.

Syracuse 76, Villanova 72

SK: The biggest takeaway I had from Villanova's win over Louisville was the poise of point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. Playing against the best backcourt in the country, Arcidiacono had 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals in 36 minutes. The 18-year old freshman never lost confidence in his ability to handle Louisville's unrelenting pressure and calmly sank some big free throws down the stretch. Arcidiacono's development continues to be the biggest storyline of Villanova's season. He took a positive step on Tuesday towards becoming the next great Villanova guard, a player that can ultimately lift the program back to the heights it became accustomed to from 2005-2011.

I was at the Carrier Dome two weeks ago, and Villanova was very much in that game midway through the second half. Syracuse's C.J. Fair was the difference, scoring a game-high 22 points (including 11 of the Orange's first 15 points in the second half). JayVaughn Pinkston had a team-high 12 points in 18 minutes for Villanova. I'll stop short of ranting about Pinkston's lack of playing time for the second straight week, but Pinkston needs to play 25-30 minutes to give the Wildcats any shot of beating Syracuse. I expect a big effort from Pinkston and some considerable help from Mouphtaou Yarou, who always seems to play well against Syracuse's 2-3 zone. His ability to knock down the 15-foot elbow jumper exposes one of the few weaknesses of Jim Boeheim's defense.

Villanova 71, Syracuse 68   

Georgia State (10-11) at Drexel (7-11) - Saturday, 12 p.m.

BB: I'm not sure any team in the country needed a shot to fall more than Drexel did on Wednesday night. And when Frantz Massenat's half-court heave beat the buzzer at Hofstra, a hard-luck season was finally balanced by a dose of good fortune. Drexel now has its first winning streak of the season, and now it's time to build on that momentum. Damion Lee returned from injury to score 14 points in the win over Hofstra, and the Dragons are going to need him to get back in the thick of the CAA race.

Drexel played one of its best games of the season in the first meeting with Georgia State, winning by 17 in Atlanta three weeks ago. That should give the Dragons confidence, and they clearly have momentum thanks to Massenat's miraculous game-winner. Drexel is still dangerous, and I think the good times will keep rolling on Saturday at the DAC.

Drexel 64, Georgia State 56

SK: I have a special interest in Drexel, given that I labeled the Dragons the best team in the city in the season preview edition of "Fastbreak Friday." Don't laugh too hard - Brian picked first and took Saint Joseph's. Obviously I didn't envision Drexel's season unfolding the way it has. We've been over the injuries to key players, but at some point the Dragons need to start making their own luck. It's fitting that it was Massenat who heaved Wednesday's 50-foot buzzer-beater. He needs to be the one to lead the revival for Bruiser Flint's team.

A relatively healthy Lee playing alongside Massenat gives Drexel one of the top backcourts in the CAA. Getting Daryl McCoy back to full strength is essential - he played just 13 minutes against Hofstra while recovering from a foot injury. I sense the Dragons could finally be rounding into form. Better late than never, and there's still plenty of basketball to be played.

Drexel 68, Georgia State 59      

Temple (13-5) at No. 9 Butler (16-3) - Saturday, 6 p.m.

BB: Temple sure doesn't seem to like playing mediocre opposition, so maybe a trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse is just what the Owls need. Temple had to work way too hard to beat a 3-15 Penn team on Wednesday night, pulling away late to win 76-69. The Owls simply have not played with the same level of intensity or focus against lesser teams that they showed in a win over Syracuse and a near-miss at Kansas. At this point, Khalif Wyatt should just arrive to practice wearing a "Help Wanted" sign, because the senior guard is flat-out carrying the team right now. Against Penn, Wyatt scored 16 of his game-high 26 points in an early second-half run that allowed Temple to pull even. Otherwise, the Owls might have suffered one of the most embarrassing losses of the entire college basketball season.

Temple is not defending very well right now, allowing 75 points per game over their last two contests. That's not a recipe for success against a Butler team that prides itself on great half-court execution under Brad Stevens. The Bulldogs are also expecting the return of leading scorer Rotnei Clarke, one of the best three-point shooters in the country. Add in the fact that Butler is coming off Wednesday's last-second loss to La Salle, and the deck seems stacked against the Owls, though I have no doubt they'll be up for another top-10 opponent. In the end, I think Butler is too good offensively and defensively for Temple to pull this one out.

Butler 74, Temple 67

SK: Temple has plenty of company in terms of inconsistent college basketball teams. The results of the past week across the country illustrate that point aptly. The Owls have handled themselves well against top-10 opposition this season, and I have little doubt that will continue on Saturday. Truth be told, Butler's end of game fortunes are overdue to even out. We saw the beginning of that Wednesday at La Salle. Don't get me wrong, Stevens is an outstanding coach. What he's done at Butler is nothing short of unprecedented in college basketball. But without a Clarke off-balanced three against Marquette, an Alex Barrow overtime scoop shot that hit every part of the rim against Indiana, and a Roosevelt Jones miracle steal and runner against Gonzaga, this Bulldogs team is 13-6 instead of 16-3.

Clarke's expected return is clearly big for Butler. But Wyatt will be the best player on the floor at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The senior guard is playing the best basketball of his career and he's getting more and more help from Anthony Lee, who's upped his season averages to 11.8 points and 7.4 rebounds. Look for Temple to pull off the upset and add another impressive line to it's NCAA tournament resume.

Temple 72, Butler 69  

Xavier (11-7) at Saint Joseph's (10-7) - Saturday, 6 p.m.

BB: What on Earth is happening on Hawk Hill? St. Joe's looked stuck in the starting blocks Wednesday night, allowing St. Bonaventure to race out to a 36-17 halftime lead, ultimately losing by nine. It certainly didn't help that the Hawks shot just 2-for-22 from three-point range, or that Langston Galloway suffered a corneal abrasion to his left eye and missed the second half. The preseason pick to win the Atlantic 10, St. Joe's is now 1-3 in the conference, currently tied for 12th. The Hawks have already lost to VCU and Butler, so there aren't going to be many opportunities for marquee wins the rest of the way.

St. Joe's will try to right the ship against a Xavier team that has already beaten Temple and La Salle, and may need to be honorary Big 5 champions if they win at Hagan Arena. After Wednesday's loss, Phil Martelli said his team is "on the mat," and has to play a higher-level game against Xavier. I'm going to guess that his veteran team has gotten the wake-up call it needed.

St. Joe's 71, Xavier 65

SK: So much for my prediction last week that Saint Joseph's was poised for a late-season run to get back into the A-10 race. The Hawks inexplicably fell behind by 25 in the first half against St. Bonaventure at home. That hole is too deep to climb out of 99 percent of the time, particularly when your best player is sidelined with an eye injury. Of everything that's gone wrong for Marrtelli's team, the inability to defend its own building is front and center. Saint Joseph's is 1-3 in its last four games at Hagan Arena.

No player is more influential in the Hawks' fortunes than senior Carl Jones. He's the team's leading scorer at 14.8 ppg, but in those three home losses he averaged 6.0 points on 15-percent shooting from the field. Jones and teammates need to pull together and get a win on their home court before this becomes a lost season altogether. It won't be easy against Xavier but I think the Hawks' desperation wins out.

St. Joe's 74, Xavier 70

La Salle (13-5) at No. 19 VCU (16-4) - Saturday, 8 p.m.

BB: After La Salle's biggest win in a generation, what will the Explorers do for an encore? Wednesday's thrilling 54-53 win over No. 9 Butler was the program's first top-10 win since 1980, and suddenly the quest for La Salle's first NCAA tournament berth since 1992 has become very possible. If the Explorers can pull off the win at VCU, those chances will go from possible to probable.

On paper, La Salle matches up well with VCU. Both teams are guard oriented, and VCU's brand of defense, known as "havoc," thrives on full-court pressure that harasses opposing ball-handlers into turnovers. In Tyreek Duren, the Explorers have a confident point guard who should be able to handle that pressure effectively. VCU has also looked vulnerable recently, blowing a late lead to lose to rival Richmond on Thursday night, and nearly losing at home to St. Joe's last week.

That being said, I can't shake the memory of La Salle's last opportunity for a marquee road win, when Miami destroyed the Explorers in the second half back on Jan. 2. I'd love to see La Salle win at VCU, but I'm not sure they can execute for 40 minutes in a hostile environment.

VCU 78, La Salle 68

SK: The party lasted deep into the night Wednesday at 20th & Olney. CSN producer and La Salle insider Andrew Greth joined the fray at halfcourt not once but twice following the Explorers' heart-stopping win over Butler, then joined head coach Dr. John Giannini in the victory parade back to the CSN studios in South Philadelphia. Giannini made the trip to appear on this week's "Big Men on Campus" with Neil Hartman, Greth to bask in the glory of his program's biggest win since the Jimmy Carter administration. As the two men embraced in the CSN newsroom, it was impossible to tell who was more excited about the night's events.       

La Salle is very much a NCAA tournament-caliber team. The Explorers' record and RPI spell that out plainly. But their chances of making this a monumental week with a win at VCU Saturday decreased significantly with the Rams' loss to Richmond Thursday. VCU will be plenty motivated given that loss and La Salle's win over Butler. There will be no shortage of terrific guard play Saturday night -- VCU and La Salle have two of the best backcourts in the A-10. But I give the slight edge to Shaka Smart's team.

VCU 75, La Salle 70