Six in the City: Gearing up for the Madness

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Six in the City: Gearing up for the Madness

Friday, February 25, 2011
Posted: 5:42 p.m.

By Dave Zeitlin
CSNPhilly.com Contributor

Check your calendars the best month for any college basketball fan is almost upon us. But before the madness of March truly begins with postseason tournaments, teams around the nation will try to polish up their rsums and stamp their credentials for the Big Dance. With that in mind, heres a look at what each of the citys six Division I teams have done through February and what they can do, if anything, to enjoy the fruits of March.

Villanova Wildcats

Record: 21-7 overall, 9-6 Big East
RPI: 30 (14 Pomeroy)
On tap: vs. St. Johns, Wells Fargo Center, Saturday, 2 p.m.
Signature win: Jan. 22 at Syracuse, 83-72
Worst loss: Feb. 9 at Rutgers, 77-76

What theyve done well through February: The Wildcats have been ranked all season, thanks to the two Coreys, who have both lived up their billing in their senior seasons. Corey Fisher is averaging 16 points and five assists per game, while Corey Stokes is averaging 15 points per game and shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

What they need to do better in March: Villanovas third star guard, sophomore Maalik Wayns, has been up-and-down since head coach Jay Wright decided to bring him off the bench. If the Wildcats wants to slow down their Big East skid theyve lost six of their last 11 and make a deep NCAA run, theyll need all of their guards to be at their best at the same time.

Realistic expectations: Anything short of the Sweet 16 would be a disappointment for these Cats, and a trip to the Elite Eight is certainly attainable if things break right. But advancing to the Final Four is probably a stretch for a team skidding at the wrong time.

Temple Owls

Record: 21-6 overall, 11-2 Atlantic 10
RPI: 32 (36 Pomeroy)
On Tap: at George Washington, Saturday, 2 p.m.
Signature win: Dec. 9 Georgetown, 68-65
Worst loss: Nov. 25 California, 57-50
What theyve done well through February: The critics have been hard on Lavoy Allen all season, but the Temple senior is a college star, plain and simple. In the past week, Allen set the programs all-time rebounding record in an Owls win over St. Joes and followed it up with a 17-point, 13-rebound output against No. 1 Duke on Wednesday. He is the main reason why the Owls have once again won over 20 games.

What they need to do better in March: Its very simple: the Owls must get healthy and stay healthy. Micheal Erics season-ending knee injury stung, but even worse is the loss of junior swingman Scootie Randall, who was having a breakout season. Randall has missed the last two games with a foot injury and his return is uncertain. Without him, leading scorer Ramone Moore, point guard Juan Fernandez and Allen will have to be almost perfect for the Owls down the stretch.

Realistic expectations: Again, this all depends on Randalls return, but the Owls will certainly be gunning for their fourth straight Atlantic 10 tournament championship. At least one win in the NCAA tournament would also be a boon for the program and for head coach Fran Dunphy, who has lost 11 straight NCAA games dating back to 1994.

Drexel Dragons

Record: 19-9 overall, 10-7 Colonial Athletic Association
RPI: 59 (94 Pomeroy)
On Tap: at Towson, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Signature win: Dec. 14 at Lousiville, 52-46
Worst loss: Feb. 15 at UNC Wilmington, 51-43

What theyve done well through February: The Dragons have been among the best teams in the nation all season in two very important categories: defense and rebounding. Theyre holding opposing teams to less than 60 points per game, while averaging just over 40 rebounds per game one of the top 10 totals in Division I.
What they need to do better in March: The Dragons will never light teams up offensively, but theyll need to avoid going ice cold from the floor. In their last loss, an ugly 51-43 loss to lowly UNC Wilmington, they shot just 26 percent from the field.

Realistic expectations: This is a very solid Drexel team. The Dragons showed that with back-to-back wins over Kent State and VCU in the past week. The next step now is to try to win the CAA tournament, which begins next Friday. With conference powers George Mason and Old Dominion standing in their way, it will be a very difficult task but very likely the only way for the Dragons to make the Big Dance. If not, an NIT bid awaits.
Penn Quakers

Record: 11-12 overall, 5-4 Ivy League
RPI: 168 (171 Pomeroy)
On Tap: vs. Columbia, tonight, 7 p.m.
Signature win: Nov. 13 Davidson, 69-64
Worst loss: Dec. 29 at Marist, 66-57

What theyve done well through February: Although its not going to translate into an Ivy League title this season, the Quakers are showing signs of improvement following last years dreadful six-win campaign. Junior guard Zack Rosen and senior forward Jack Eggleston have been among the best players in the Ivy League, and senior sharpshooter Tyler Bernardini has been lights-out after a slow start.
What they need to do better in March: Losing close games has been an issue for the Quakers, whose Ivy title hoops were doomed with three straight overtime defeats earlier this month to Harvard, Princeton and Cornell. All of those games played out the same way with Penn falling behind early, storming back to force overtime and then making critical errors down the stretch. The key for Penn going forward is not getting into such a big hole to begin with.

Realistic expectations: Without a conference tournament to fall back on and with Harvard and Princeton dominating the league the Quakers dont have much of a chance to play in the postseason. For them, beating archrival Princeton in their final regular-season game would be a great finale and could also spoil the Tigers NCAA hopes. With all of their top guards coming back next season, the Quakers would also be wise to keep developing freshman forwards Cameron Gunter and Fran Dougherty, both of whom will likely be major contributors in 2011-12.

La Salle Explorers

Record: 12-16 overall, 4-9 Atlantic 10
RPI: 179 (195 Pomeroy)
On Tap: Sunday vs. UMass, 2 p.m.
Signature win: Nov. 23 Providence, 84-73
Worst loss: Dec. 29 Towson, 93-90, OT

What theyve done well through February: Offense has never been an issue for the Explorers, who rank 31st in the nation with 76.6 points per game. Sophomore center Aaric Murray (14.9 ppg), senior forward Jerrell Williams (13.9 ppg) and senior guard Ruben Guillandeaux (12.3) are all scoring in double figures, and guards Tyreek Duren (9.9 ppg) and Earl Pettis (9.7 ppg) are not far behind.

What they need to do better in March: Its been a season-long struggle for head coach John Giannini to get his team to defend, especially in key spots when they need a big stop. Theyve been giving up just about 80 points per game, and thats just not going to cut it in March.

Realistic expectations: The season began with a lot of promise after near misses against Missouri, Oklahoma State and Villanova. But the Explorers have sputtered in conference play, losing five of their last six. At this point, La Salles goal should be to win their first-round game in the Atlantic 10 tournament and then try to spring an upset in the conference quarterfinals in Atlantic City.

Saint Josephs Hawks

Record: 7-20 overall, 2-11 Atlantic 10
RPI: 200 (214 Pomeroy)
On Tap: Saturday, vs. Saint Bonaventure, 4 p.m.
Signature win: Nov. 26 Rutgers, 76-70
Worst loss: Nov. 12 Western Kentucky, 98-70

What theyve done well through February: Sophomore Carl Jones has been the top scorer in the city for most of the season, and highly touted freshmen Langston Galloway, C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts have all shown flashes of promise.

What they need to do better in March: With such a young team, you expect some growing pains but at the same time, all of the losses have been hard to bear for the SJU faithful who have come to expect winning on Hawk Hill. At this point, the only thing the Hawks can do is keep trying to come together as a team as they build for the future.

Realistic expectations: Just being one of the 12 teams to qualify for the A-10 tournament is important for the Hawks. To do that, they will likely need to beat Charlotte next weekend in their final regular season. Both SJU and Charlotte are currently tied for the 12th place in the 14-team league.

Six in the City is a weekly feature on the citys six Division I college basketball programs written by CSNPhilly.com contributor Dave Zeitlin. You can email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we paid y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."