St. Joe's Takes on La Salle as Big 5 Title Picture Comes into Focus

St. Joe's Takes on La Salle as Big 5 Title Picture Comes into Focus

The La Salle Explorers and St. Joseph's University Hawks are set to do battle from inside the Palestra on Saturday.

It will be the first and only meeting between the programs this season; as such, it is both an Atlantic 10 and Big 5 contest, one that will have profound ramifications on this year's city title.

Tip-off is set for 12 p.m. (The Comcast Network / 610 AM (SJU) / 990 AM (La Salle).

Full game preview after the jump...

How We Got Here
In the tale of the two city rivals, it's not quite the best and worst of times, but it isn't that far off either.

Picked to finish second-to-last in the A10 preseason poll, the La Salle Explorers (17-6, 6-2, 1-1) now lead the conference. They have won their last four in the a row and 10 of their last 12. They are 15-3 since opening the season 2-3 following a Nov. 25 loss to Robert Morris. That said, very few of those wins have come against quality opponents (an obviously arguable distinction). Based on how tough they played both Temple and Dayton, there's no doubt La Salle can hang with the best in the A10, but it remains to be seen whether they can hold on to that top spot in what's become a very competitive conference. As the saying goes, "you can only beat the teams on your schedule," something La Salle done and done well. Now, they just need to prove that their early season success in sustainable both down the stretch and, most importantly, with the confines of Boardwalk Hall in March. Given the individual play of Earl Pettis, Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren and freshman Jerrell Wright, all indications are that the Explorers are built for the long-haul in 2012.

St. Joseph's (14-9, 4-4, 1-1), on the other hand, opened its season to a decent deal of fan fare. The young Hawks showed promise toward the end of last season with their unexpected mini-run in the A10 tourney and started out especially strong eight months later. Dominant performances over #17 Creighton and Holy War rival Villanova painted the team as a force to be reckoned with out of conference. In conference, however, it's been a different story. The new calendar year has not been kind to St. Joseph's, as the team has gone just 4-6 since their Dec. 28 win over Morgan State. At 4-4 in conference play, they are currently tied for seventh in the A10. Still, despite many a recent setback, the Hawks have found away to keep themselves afloat with key wins to stem their bleeding (1/25 vs. Dayton and 2/1 at Richmond). They'll need more than just the occassional breakout performance moving forward so as not to put themselves at an even greater disadvatage in what could be an absolute bloodbath of Atlantic 10 tournament.

The Matchup: Let's Play a Little Inside-Outside
The Explorers will take the floor with their four guard offense while the Hawks figure to counter with solid height and tremendous leapers C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts under the basket.

If there was an early preview of this game already played, fans may only need to look back to last weekend's Temple-St. Joe matchup for an idea of how this one could (not should) play out.

Sure, the Hawks rank second in the nation in blocked shots as a team with 7.9 per game, but it could be hard to have those contested takes prove meaningful if La Salle seems content to shoot over the SJU defense from the perimeter. The Explorers lead the A10 in both field goal and three-point shooting percentage per game at 47.7% and 40.8%, respectively. Though the Hawks are no slouches themselves with both Carl Jones and Langston Galloway more than capable of shooting the ball (Galloway is emerging as one, if not the best jump shooter in the conference), both have also been inconsistent this season, with Jones especially struggling as of late.

At the opposite end, La Salle is defending the perimeter just over 3.5 points better than Joe's (31.9% to 35.5%). In that sense, 31.9% isn't a great average from beyond while 35.5% in certainly closer to respectable. Add in La salle's abnormally high percentage from three and SJU could face their share of troubles on the perimeter.

In the event they choose to over-pursue the pursue the perimeter, they'll certainly have Aiken and Roberts under the basket -- who have no doubt helped to lead the Hawks to second-best defensive FG% in the conference -- but their struggles against the Owls make it hard not to predict similar issues against La Salle. The Explorers and Owls are actually somewhat similar in their styles and rotations (especially before the return of TU's Micheal Eric) in that both teams are deep at the guard position and rely on team defense for a sense of self-identity. Again, Temple's success against St. Joe's doesn't guarantee how this game will play out, just how it could.

Big 5 Ramifications
With Villanova and Penn already settled at 2-2 and 1-3, both St. Joe's and La Salle at 1-1 and neither having played Temple (as part of a Big 5 game), Saturday's game is of the utmost importance when it comes to a shot at this year's city title. Big 5 standings and remaining schedules below:

Temple         2-0
St. Joseph's   1-1
Villanova       2-2
La Salle         1-1
Penn             1-3

Feb. 22 -- Temple at La Salle (Gola Arena)
Feb. 25 -- Temple at St. Joseph's (Hagan Arena)

Relevant History
All-Time Series: St. Joe's leads 62-53
Streak: La Salle has won three of the last four and the last three in a row at the Palestra.
Martelli vs. La Salle: 14-8
Giannini (at La Salle) vs. St. Joe's: 3-4
Last Meeting: La Salle won 76-72 on Jan. 27, 2011 at The Palestra. Saint Joseph's Carl jones posted a game-high 24 points, while Aaric Murray led the Explorers with 19 and 14 double-double.

Late-Night Homework
You kids meet for an en masse rollout party in Manayunk last night?

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

In his second-to-last game in a Phillies uniform, Ryan Howard will man first base and bat fifth against the Mets on Saturday afternoon (1:05/FOX).

Howard went 1 for 4 Friday night with a double. The first baseman has three home runs and five RBI in 44 at-bats against the Mets this season. 

Andres Blanco takes Freddy Galvis’ starting spot at shortstop and bats second. Galvis left Friday night's game with hamstring tightness. Blanco has not made a start since Sept. 16, but is batting .294 against the Mets this year.

Cameron Rupp catches and bats sixth for the second day in a row. Rupp went 2 for 3 on Friday night with an RBI. Jimmy Paredes and Aaron Altherr follow Rupp in the lineup and man the corners in the outfield.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Andres Blanco, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Phil Klein, P

And the Mets lineup:
1. Jose Reyes, 3B
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
3. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
4. Curtis Granderson, CF
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. T.J. Rivera, 2B
7. James Loney, 1B
8. Travis d'Arnaud, C
9. Bartolo Colon, P

Love Isn't Always on Time: Approaching the Ben Simmons injury rationally

Love Isn't Always on Time: Approaching the Ben Simmons injury rationally

Does it hurt? Yeah, it hurts. 

You know when the last year the Sixers went into the preseason without a devastating injury to a frontcourt player hanging over their heads was? 2011. Back when LMFAO was big. Since then, it's been:

2012: Andrew Bynum
2013: Nerlens Noel
2014: Joel Embiid
2015: Joel Embiid
2016: Ben Simmons

Even the Blazers, heretofore the NBA franchise with the most cursed big-man luck, got years, decades in between the NBA tragedies of Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden to grieve. The Sixers seem unprecedently determined to get their bad juju all out of the way at once. 

The last item on that list was, of course, announced last night - Simmons has a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot -- and is especially tough, mostly because it was so unforeseeable. Andrew Bynum had a long history of injury. Nerlens Noel was ruled out for the season before draft night, as was Joel Embiid. But as far as we knew, Ben Simmons had lived a long and healthy life that, failing a Shaun Livingston-type freak injury, was just going to continue in its elongated healthiness. Foot trouble was definitely not in the plan. 

It's also tough because it proves we're not out of the woods yet. Not like anyone thought Philly was gonna win 40 games and challenge for the playoffs this year, but certainly most of us allowed ourselves to believe that the worst was over, and that karma was gonna finally owe us for a little while. Turns out, we may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us. Doug Collins musta really sold this team's soul to get us to that Game 7 against Boston in the conference semis four seasons ago. 

But we can deal. For better and worse, Sixers fans have developed a hard-earned resilience to news of such maladies, and this revelation isn't nearly as bad as some other casually-in-crisis press releases we've had to deal with in recent years (yet). So once we're done processing the initial sorrow that comes with hearing we're not going to get to see our No. 1 overall pick play meaningful basketball as soon as we deserve, let's make our parents proud by being good little Process Trusters, and approaching this situation rationally: 

This is only a two-month injury. 

This isn't yet, and shouldn't be, a season-ender. ESPN estimates Simmons will be out eight weeks; a wise bet would probably have him staying sidelined a little longer than that Just to Be Sure. Christmas seems like the reasonable mental goalpost for his return, which means -- barring setbacks -- at most he'd miss the team's first 30 games. 

That's a lot, but not really: Jahlil Okafor missed 29 games last season, and I don't think most of us even remember injuries as being a particularly notable part of his rookie year. By this point, the Sixers are used to going entire seasons without proof of life from our star rooks. Two months? We can do that standing on our heads. 

This doesn't necessarily mean anything for Simmons' long-term prospects. 

Feet-related injuries are rivaled only by head stuff as the scariest thing you can see on an NBA medical report — especially for big men, as memories of giants like Walton and Yao having their careers plagued by such maladies continue to reverberate. In Simmons' case, his injury is reminiscent of Nets center Brook Lopez, who lost the better part of several seasons to recurring problems stemming from an initial foot fracture. 

But as that above list shows, the great majority of NBA players to have suffered this injury -- presumed to be an avulsion fracture, not the ghastlier Jones fracture -- have bounced back from it pretty quickly, and not been subsequently effected. Pau Gasol and Mike Bibby both went on to have long, productive, mostly health-drama-free-careers -- hell, Pau just averaged 19 and 13 in 72 games as a 35-year-old. C.J. McCollum suffered the injury as a rookie just three years ago, and I'd already forgotten it was even part of his story. Our Once and Always Dark Lord-willing, it doesn't have to be part of Simmons', either. 

The Sixers — and Simmons — were gonna be bad anyway. 

Not like this much hurts the Sixers' playoff chances, which were basically 0 to begin with. As much excitement as we could have expected from the early parts of this season, "wins' was not gonna be part of the deal just yet — Vegas set our over-under at 27.5, and most of our local experts have logically taken the under. Hopefully we actually get at least one of our first 17 this year, but with a poorly balanced rotation consisting mostly of rookies and free agents, W's were always gonna be slow-coming. 

And I personally believed that Simmons was gonna take a while to blossom himself. We'd get some gorgeous passes and fun full-court shenanigans, sure, but we'd also get a lot of clanked jumpers, missed rotations, and soul-sucking isos that take up 18 seconds of the shot-clock and still finish where they started. He'll still have that rough adjustment period two months or so later, but at least with the season already underway and the rest of the squad maybe finding their footing a little, hopefully there'll be less pressure on him to do everything immediately. 

Simmons can still put in work while sidelined. 

Remember how horrific Nerlens Noel's shooting form was coming into the NBA? The upside of him missing a year with his torn ACL was that he was able to spend a good portion of his should've-been-rookie season rebuilding it. He's still not Kevin Garnett on offense and likely never will be, but he was able to reach Respectably Bad at the free-throw line, and that alone will make an enormous difference in the arc of his NBA career. 

Simmons' jumper isn't nearly so broken, but he could also use the work. Time spent perfecting his mechanics while he doesn't have any other aspects of the game to really worry about could be huge for Benny's early development, and hopefully will give him the confidence to take -- if not yet make -- those open jumpers when first presented to him. 

We still have the two other guys. 

Truth is, Simmons was only the rookie I was third-most-excited about on the Sixers this year, and the other two -- Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, who we've waited a combined four seasons for -- are still on track to play. Of course, putting all (or at least half) our eggs in Emiid's basket is never gonna be a particularly secure feeling, and the mind goes even catatonic considering the possibility of Embiid also getting hurt before season's start. But if (knock on lumber-yard) this as bad as the preseason news gets for the Sixers, and we enter with just the two mega-hyped rooks, with a third on the way shortly... that's still cupcakes and sprinkles as far as I'm concerned. 

So yeah, this is a bad weekend, and a rough development for a fanbase who'd finally begun to let their guard down the teensiest amount. That said, it's not the end of the world, the end of the season, or really the end of anything besides our foolishly unbridled optimism. A valuable lesson in hoping for the best and always fearing the worst, but just because we're not floating in the clouds anymore doesn't mean we're plummeting to the ground yet, either.