Fastbreak Friday: No. 1 Villanova looks to bounce back from first loss

Fastbreak Friday: No. 1 Villanova looks to bounce back from first loss

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.
 
No. 1 Villanova (14-1, 2-1 Big East) vs. Marquette (10-4, 1-1 Big East), Saturday 7:30 p.m.
SK: Villanova sets out to start a new winning streak following Wednesday's 66-58 loss at Butler that snapped a 20-game win streak dating back to last season. The Wildcats shot just 37 percent from the field at Butler with senior stars Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins combining to go 7 for 22. Villanova made 6 of 23 three-point attempts and its total of 58 points was 22 points below its season average. Add it all up and it equaled the Wildcats' first loss of the season and it will cost them their No. 1 national ranking on Monday.
 
Wednesday was a frustrating night on several fronts for Jay Wright. He became incensed after being given a first-half technical foul and had to be restrained by his players and assistant coaches from further arguing with the official. It was as animated and angry as I've seen Wright during his 16 seasons at Villanova.

To make matters worse, he was serenaded with "Jay Wright sucks" chants from the Butler student section throughout the game. However misguided the premise may have been, that’s typical stuff for a student section at a college basketball game. A "Jay Wright has carried this league for four years" chant was probably more appropriate, but it certainly wouldn't have gathered as much momentum.
 
Needless to say, Wright is anxious to move on to Marquette on Saturday night in Villanova's first game at the Wells Fargo Center this season.
 
Marquette has played well this season. The Golden Eagles have four losses against Michigan, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and last weekend's three-point loss at Seton Hall. Marquette is a deep and balanced team, with seven players averaging nine points or more. This is Steve Wojciechowski's third season at Marquette and he's taken small steps toward leading the Golden Eagles back to Big East relevance. Marquette won 20 games last year and seems poised to match that win total this season.
 
While the Marquette program is making strides, it still isn't on Villanova's level. The Wildcats — particularly Hart and Jenkins — should be plenty anxious to atone for their first loss of the season. Expect more big things from sophomore Jalen Brunson, who is playing the best basketball of his career. Brunson followed up a 27-point outing at Creighton last weekend with 23 points at Butler on Wednesday. He's doing a masterful job of running the Villanova offense, setting up his teammates and being more and more assertive in looking for his own scoring opportunities. Brunson has established himself as one of the best point guards in college basketball.
 
The Wildcats would be well-served to get sophomore Mikal Bridges going. Bridges went scoreless against Butler and is averaging just four points in Villanova's three Big East games. The Wildcats need Bridges to be a consistent fourth scoring option for their offense to operate at a high level. Bridges' talent has never been in question; he just seems to be lacking in confidence. A big night from Bridges against Marquette would be a welcomed sight for everyone associated with the Villanova program. 
 
Villanova 82, Marquette 68   
 
Saint Joseph's (7-6, 1-1 A-10) at Fordham (6-9, 0-2 A-10), Saturday 3 p.m.
AF:  The Hawks were rocked over the New Year's holiday with the news that leading scorer Shavar Newkirk is done for the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee. St. Joe's will miss his leadership and 20.3 points per game. That was certainly evident in the Hawks' most recent game, a 30-point loss at Rhode Island this week. There was a bit of good news though, with the return of James Demery. Coach Phil Martelli will turn to his junior forward to pick up the scoring and leadership void left by Newkirk. In the loss to the Rams, Demery led the way with 17 points, so he has the potential to help the Hawks in the box score and on the court. But it's a tall task for a St. Joe's team that was already dealing with the loss of Pierfrancesco Oliva.

Before losing to Rhode Island, St. Joe's had won four of its last five games. They'd done so by limiting turnovers, shooting well and playing good defense. In those four wins, the Hawks shot 45 percent with only nine turnovers on average. But in the loss to the Rams, the Hawks shot about 40 percent and committed 17 turnovers. Now in life post-Newkirk, they'll need to duplicate those numbers in the wins in order to stay afloat in the Atlantic 10.

Fordham is coming off back to back losses, though both by single digits. The Rams are averaging around 68 points per game and shooting 42 percent from the field, so on paper it looks like it's a more even matchup for the Hawks. But in the last two games, despite both being losses, Fordham shot close to 50 percent from the field and passed the 70 point plateau. That could be a problem for Phil Martelli's crew, as they will have trouble scoring and stopping opponents without Newkirk on the court. 

It's a new world for Martelli and the Hawks, one that will focus on the younger players on the roster. The good news is that they will get experience. The bad news is, wins will be harder to come by with a 20-point scorer on the bench.

Fordham 70, St. Joe's 58 

Temple (9-7, 0-3 AAC) vs. East Carolina (9-7, 1-2 AAC) , Saturday 12 p.m.
SK: Temple limps into this matchup after losing its first three conference games by an average of 12 points. Scoring has been hard to come by for the Owls, who are averaging just 56 points during this three-game losing streak. The absence of senior point guard Josh Brown -- who has missed the last five games with soreness in his Achilles -- continues to hurt Temple. He initially returned from offseason Achilles surgery to play in five games from late November to mid-December before the soreness became too significant to play through.
 
Brown is a key cog in the Temple lineup and his presence goes a long way towards the Owls' effectiveness on both ends of the floor. In addition to Brown not being available, Temple's best player is struggling. Junior forward Obi Enechionyia averaged 18.6 points in the Owls' first 10 games. But in the six games since, he's averaging 8.5 points while shooting just 31 percent from the floor. Enechionyia showed signs of regaining his form on Wednesday at SMU, scoring 16 points and knocking down 4 of 9 three-point attempts.
 
Temple picked a bad time to get in a funk. The Owls' first three opponents in conference play -- No. 22 Cincinnati, UCF and SMU -- have a combined 37-8 record on the season. So you can excuse shorthanded Temple for losing its last three games. But Fran Dunphy has never been into excuses and he's undoubtedly been searching for answers to get his team back on track.
 
Relief could be arriving in the form of East Carolina. The Pirates have lost five of their last seven games and averaged 44.5 points in their last two games. I look for Temple to come out inspired and get a big game from Enechionyia, who should benefit from the confidence boost the SMU game provided.
 
Temple 64, East Carolina 58
 
Pennsylvania (6-5) at Princeton (7-6), Saturday 7 p.m.
AF:  What better way to kick off Ivy League play than with the best rivalry in the league in Penn vs. Princeton. It's the 235th meeting between these two storied rivals and this one takes place in the Tigers' gym. Princeton has enjoyed this matchup lately, winning five straight over the Quakers. But here's a fun fact: under Steve Donahue, Penn is undefeated when leading at the half, going 5-0 this season, and 11-0 in the last two. How about that? You thought it would be just this season, but I told you it was fun. 

Penn has won its last three games and is rounding into form, finding a good shooting stroke with 38 percent from beyond the arc in that span. Matt Howard leads the team in that category at over 44 percent three-point shooting efficiency.  But as a team, the Quakers are also limiting opponents to just 66 points per game. When you have that kind of defense, you are usually going to give yourself a fighting chance to win. 

In the two meetings last year, Penn lost by a combined three points with one of those losses going to overtime. Princeton is the preseason Ivy League favorite because three of its four leading scorers return from last season. Seniors Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz average 16 and 10 points, respectively, but it's sophomore Devin Cannady who's carried over his scoring streak from his freshman campaign. Cannady is the fastest Tigers player to reach 500 points in his Princeton career in over six seasons. Those three will be a tough test out of the gates for the Quakers. 

If this game was at the Palestra, I'd pick Penn in a heartbeat, and honestly, I'm tempted to pick them even though it's at Jadwin. But I think that while stopping one or even two of Princeton's scorers might be possible, the Quakers won't be able to hold all three to under double digits.

Princeton 69, Penn 67

La Salle (7-5, 1-1 A-10) vs. Duquesne (8-7, 1-1 A-10),  Saturday 8 p.m.
SK: La Salle is starting to pick up steam with wins in 3 of its last 4 games, including Wednesday's 21-point win over St. Louis. The usual suspects led the way for the Explorers against St. Louis with senior guard Jordan Price and junior forward B.J. Johnson combining for 30 points. Halfway through their first season playing together, Johnson and Price have established themselves as one of the top scoring duos in the country.
 
Sophomore guard Pookie Powell has developed into a reliable third option for La Salle. Powell is averaging 18.6 points in the last three games and has boosted his season average to 13.6 points per game. He also contributes 4.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Powell is a well-rounded player who is playing a valuable role for the Explorers.
 
Duquesne had its four-game win streak snapped Wednesday at home against VCU. Mike Lewis had 23 points in the loss and leads Duquesne with 12.8 points per game. The Dukes have the luxury of not relying on one guy -- they have six players averaging between eight and 13 points.
 
Duquesne is a solid team who should earn its share of wins in the Atlantic 10. But I don't like their chances of getting one on the road against a La Salle team playing solid basketball. Chalk up another win for the Explorers.
 
La Salle 79, Duquesne 72
 
Drexel (6-10, 0-3 CAA) at William & Mary (8-6, 2-1 CAA)
AF: At the bottom of every Fastbreak Friday column is our prediction records. And up until last week, I was in the lead. I don't want to point fingers, but I will point out that Drexel let me down last week when I lost the lead. Come on Dragons! James Madison? Really? The Dukes had only two wins on the season. But I guess they were tired of being outshined by their football team, as JMU is playing for the FCS national championship this Saturday. But that was a disappointing loss for Zach Spiker and his team. I'm sure that it's been much discussed, maligned and then moved on from.  And I'm not just talking about me and my prediction record.

Drexel is coming off facing the top two teams in the CAA. Monday resulted in a five-point overtime loss to Northeastern, then an 18-point loss to UNCW on Thursday night, both games at home. Those made for a rough start to conference play for the Dragons. They are getting good contributions from Rodney Williams, Kurk Lee and Sammy Mojica, their top three scorers who are all in the double figures.  As I mentioned in this space last week, Miles Overton is finding his stroke as well, as he's averaging about 10 points per game now too. But the defensive effort isn't where it should be for this club. That is something the Dragons are clearly still working on, with teams averaging over 75 points against them.  The Northeastern game was there for Drexel to win, but failure to get big defensive stops forced the game to overtime and a loss.

William & Mary has won two in a row, both over CAA opponents. More importantly, the Tribe is a perfect 6-0 at home this season. No surprise, as seniors Daniel Dixon and Omar Prewit are pacing William & Mary with 15 and 14 points per game. Dixon is not only the Tribe's leading scorer, but he's their best sharp shooter too, at nearly 35 percent from beyond the arc. That's an area of the court the Dragons have had trouble defending.

With this game on the road and William & Mary on a win streak, it does not bode well for Drexel.

William & Mary 76, Drexel 66

Prediction Records
Sean Kane: 12-3
Amy Fadool: 10-5

Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

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AP Images

Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

At 16-2-1, Penn State's men's hockey team is ranked first in the nation for the first time in program history.

The Nittany Lions have improved each of the last four years under head coach Guy Gadowsky. 

Their record by year:

      2013-14: 8-26-2
      2014-15: 18-15-4
Last season: 21-13-4
This season: 16-2-1

Penn State received 30 of 50 first-place votes in the USCHO Division I poll. Denver is ranked No. 2, followed by Boston University, Minnesota-Duluth and Massachusetts-Lowell (see USCHO poll).

Penn State was ranked fourth last week before sweeping Michigan State.

Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No.1 ranking

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AP Images

Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No.1 ranking

A few hours before Villanova hosted Seton Hall on Monday night, head coach Jay Wright came home and talked to his wife, Patty.

“You know you’re No. 1?” she said.

Wright didn’t react much to the news, nor did the players on the team when they found out during the pregame meal a little bit later.

“It’s not really that big of a deal this time,” Wright said. “I think we were all much more concerned with Seton Hall.”

Being No. 1 may almost be old news at this point, but thoroughly dominating good teams at the Pavilion never gets stale for the Wildcats, who cruised to a 76-46 demolition of the Pirates on the same day they regained the top spot of the rankings after a week at No. 3 (see Instant Replay).

Senior Kris Jenkins sparked the win with 16 points, shooting 4 for 6 from the three-point line and 4 for 4 from the foul line — numbers he cared far more about than the No. 1 in front of Villanova.

“That’s just a number,” Jenkins said. “We focus on getting better each and every day. We can lose our next game and we won’t be No. 1.” 

Villanova reached the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time in the program’s illustrious history last season, a couple of months before winning the national title on an iconic buzzer-beater from Jenkins.

The Wildcats then spent five weeks at No. 1 this season before a 66-58 loss to Butler on Jan. 4 moved them out of the top spot — only briefly, as it turned out.

“Every time you do something first is exciting,” Wright said. “And then you learn from it. I think we learned a great lesson last year and I think it helped us this year. And we learned a lesson again when we went to Butler. So you keep learning from it, that’s what we really take from it.”

As the Wildcats said last season, the most important thing is finishing the season No. 1. And they certainly showed once again that they have the chops to repeat as national champs — a prospect that Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard called “pretty exciting” even after his team had its brains beaten in.

“That’s a tough team to play,” Willard said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. If you’re not clicking on all cylinders when you come here, that can happen.”

Willard went on to say that “if Josh Hart’s not the National Player of the Year, then there’s something wrong.” But against the Pirates, Hart had a modest 11 points as Villanova showed off its impressive balance with all seven players in Wright’s rotation finishing with at least eight points.

Afterwards, Wright credited his three seniors — Jenkins, Hart and Darryl Reynolds (eight points, nine rebounds) — for helping the team bounce back from a sub-optimal performance in Saturday’s 70-57 win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.

“I’m just really fortunate to have three guys who are experienced and have been successful but are really humble,” Wright said. “We looked at the film, told them St. John’s played harder than us, and we took care of it. I think our seniors set the tone.”

Saturday’s win wasn’t the only game at the Garden on Villanova’s mind. The last time the Wildcats played Seton Hall, they suffered a stinging defeat to the Pirates in the title game of the Big East Tournament. 

Jenkins, though, insisted, that rare loss didn’t offer any extra motivation. Neither did the fact that Villanova set a record with its 47th straight victory at the Pavilion. Or that Monday’s win was the program’s 1,700th of all time.

“Numbers are something that is becoming a challenge for us,” Wright admitted. “It’s a great challenge to have. Right now, it doesn’t really do anything for us. But trust me, at the end of the year, we take great pride in that. All it can do is distract us right now. We know we have to answer the questions and you guys do a great job. I usually learn the numbers from you guys. It’s just not gonna do anything for us right now.”

Wright may not always like talking about his team’s absurdly impressive accomplishments. But he certainly loves games like this one as the Wildcats dominated all phases, from start to finish.

Deadly long-range shooting? Tenacious defense? Creating turnovers and scoring off them? Big-time hustle plays and rebounds? Electrifying dunks? Villanova did it all Monday in front of a raucous section of students back from winter break and one spectator named Ben Simmons, who took in the game from a courtside seat and applauded with everyone else.

What’s it like coaching a game like that? Is it ever hard when your No. 1 team is up by 30?

“It’s not difficult at all,” Wright said with a laugh. “It’s enjoyable. Things are going well, so you’re enjoying yourself.”