Fastbreak Friday: La Salle, Penn clash at Palestra

Fastbreak Friday: La Salle, Penn clash at Palestra
January 3, 2014, 2:45 pm
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Our resident college basketball junkies, CSN producers Brian Brennan and Sean Kane, make their predictions for this weekend's City 6 games. Look for Fastbreak Friday on CSNPhilly.com each Friday for the remainder of the season.

La Salle (6-6) at Penn (2-9)
Saturday, 4 p.m.

BB: One of these struggling teams will get its first Big 5 win of the season Saturday afternoon at the Palestra, a game that was moved up three hours to account for a rather important football game at Lincoln Financial Field.

La Salle could really use a win to build some momentum heading into Atlantic 10 play. The Explorers haven’t won more than two games in a row all season, and that inconsistency is a big reason for their 6-6 record. The offense simply isn’t as efficient as it was last season, when La Salle shot 45.1 percent from the field. The Explorers are only making 40.3 percent of their field goals this season, and all those missed shots lead to easier opportunities for opponents on the other end. They’re also a much worse three-point shooting team this season (30.3 percent compared to 37.7 percent last season). That perimeter shooting was a big part of what made them dangerous, and it just hasn’t been there this season.

That said, Penn head coach Jerome Allen would love La Salle’s problems. The Quakers fell to 2-9 after an 80-77 loss Thursday night at George Mason, another game in which Penn had chances to win but couldn’t seal the deal. Part of Penn’s problem is an up-and-down season from leading scorer Tony Hicks. When he’s on, as he was scoring 23 points against Mason, Hicks can really fill it up. But he had scored just 24 total points in Penn’s previous four games combined, shooting 7 of 35 from the field (20 percent). It’s tough to win when your leading scorer shoots that poorly, especially when he’s taken 50 more shots than any other player this season.

I like La Salle in this one for a couple of reasons. First, I think Penn will struggle to keep Explorer big men Steve Zack and Jerrell Wright off the glass. Secondly, Tyreek Duren lights up when plays at the Palestra, averaging 22 points in his last four games on that hallowed floor. He’ll lead La Salle to a Big 5 win before the Explorers embark on their Atlantic 10 season.

La Salle 80, Penn 65

Drexel (8-4) at Southern Miss (12-2)
Friday 8 p.m.

SK: This is a tough spot for Drexel. Coming off a home loss to Buffalo last weekend, the Dragons hit the road to take on a 12-2 Southern Miss team that won 27 games a year ago and advanced to the NIT quarterfinals. Southern Miss is the favorite to win Conference USA this season. The Golden Eagles' only two losses have been at Louisville and in a three-point setback at Western Kentucky. They are extremely deep, with nine players averaging more than 10 minutes per game and five players averaging better than nine points.

Drexel, meanwhile, is mired in an offensive slump, failing to crack 60 points in each of its last three games. The Dragons are 1-2 over that stretch mainly because of poor shooting from their two best players. Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat were a combined 8 of 33 in last Sunday's loss to Buffalo. For the season, Fouch is shooting 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from three-point range. It's been a struggle for Massenat, too, at 39 percent and 32 percent, respectively. For the Dragons to be successful, they need their backcourt to score at a more efficient rate.

This is Drexel's final non-conference game before embarking on its 16-game CAA slate. I expect the Dragons to pick up steam once league play begins. But they'll struggle Friday night.

Southern Miss 73, Drexel 61

Denver (7-7) at St. Joe's (8-4)
Saturday, 2 p.m.

SK: St. Joe's has quietly put together a four-game winning streak, beating its opponents by an average of 16 points along the way. The Hawks host Denver Saturday at Hagan Arena. The Pioneers have gone 7-3 after starting the season 0-4. But they're a team St. Joe's should handle on its home floor.

The Hawks are trending up at the right time with their Atlantic 10 opener coming next week at No. 23 Massachusetts. With Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts Jr., Halil Kanacevic and DeAndre Bembry, St. Joe's has a talented nucleus that can compete with any team in its conference. But the question for the past three to four years has been whether that talent can blend together on a consistent basis. If the light is ever going to come on for this group, now is the time with seniors Galloway, Roberts and Kanacevic preparing for their final tour through the Atlantic 10.

St. Joe's should get a relatively easy victory Saturday before turning its focus towards winning the conference, something the Hawks were predicted to do last season before losing in the first round of the NIT.

St. Joe's 77, Denver 66

Temple (5-6) at UCF (8-4)
Saturday, 4 p.m.

BB: These two schools played one of the most memorable football games in recent Temple history this season, with UCF coming back for a miracle 39-36 win on its way to the Fiesta Bowl. The Owls are hoping for a different outcome on the basketball court Saturday afternoon in their second game in the new American Athletic Conference.

Temple’s lack of depth is causing problems, but I don’t see why that should be a big surprise. The Owls lost 73 percent of their scoring from last season’s roster, which is a massive amount to make up unless you’re John Calipari, reloading with a fresh batch of McDonald’s All-Americans every year. The New Year’s Day loss at Rutgers, Temple's first game without the injured Daniel Dingle, was a prime example of the Owls' razor-thin margin for error. Quenton DeCosey and Dalton Pepper combined for 44 points at the RAC, while the rest of the team had just 22. Will Cummings (five points on 2 of 12 shooting) and Anthony Lee (eight points on 3 of 15 shooting) had rough nights offensively. Temple’s bench players aren’t ready to offset those kinds of poor performances from multiple key players.

Temple and UCF look pretty similar on paper. Both average 78 points per game and neither team is particularly big inside. One player to watch for UCF is senior guard Calvin Newell, a Philadelphia native (Strath Haven High School) who would undoubtedly love to have a big game against the Owls. With two evenly-matched teams, I’m going to pick UCF to win on its “blacktop” home court.

UCF 76, Temple 71

Providence (10-4) at No. 11 Villanova (12-1)
Sunday, 7 p.m.

SK: Conference play is already in full swing for Villanova. The Wildcats began life in the reconfigured Big East with a hard-fought 76-73 overtime win at Butler on Tuesday. The play of JayVaughn Pinkston had to be the most comforting sign to emerge from that victory for Jay Wright. Pinkston had 22 points, four rebounds and three blocks just three days after one of the worst games of his career at Syracuse. Villanova is very difficult to defend when Pinkston is active and involved in the offense.

The Wildcats owe Providence after losing twice to the Friars last season. But Providence is due for some good luck of its own after its last two losses -- an overtime defeat last weekend at Massachusetts and a double-overtime home loss to Seton Hall on Tuesday in the Friars' Big East opener. Bryce Cotton runs the show for Providence, averaging 19.1 points and 5.6 assists in a staggering 38.6 minutes per game. Cotton will be the focal point of the Villanova defense. Expect the Wildcats to make someone other than Cotton beat them after he averaged 21 points against them last year.

Villanova's offense would benefit from Ryan Arcidiacono being more assertive. The sophomore point guard has focused on being more of a distributor one year after finishing as the Wildcats' second-leading scorer with 12 points per game. Arcidiacono's desire to set up teammates like Pinkston, James Bell and Darrun Hilliard for scoring opportunities makes sense. But there has to be a happy medium -- Arcidiacono has taken just 15 shots in Villanova's last three games, including three shot attempts last weekend at Syracuse. His shooting percentages are down, but he remains one of the Wildcats' most capable scorers.

It won't be easy against an experienced Providence team that's had Villanova's number the past few years. But the Wildcats will find a way to get their 13th win of the season Sunday on their home floor.

Villanova 77, Providence 71  

Prediction Record

Last week: 2-2

Season: 18-7

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