They're so good, they miraculously found -- and then won -- the lost city of Atlantis. ... We're pretty sure. (USA Today Images)
Coming into the season, this Sunday’s Villanova-La Salle game figured to be a clash between the city’s two best teams, with the Explorers -- coming off a Sweet 16 berth in 2012-13 -- maybe even holding the slight edge.
But after a month-and-a-half, one thing has become clear: Villanova is by far the best team in the city… and perhaps one of the best teams in the nation.
Just take a look at some of the numbers:
- The Wildcats are unbeaten in nine games, thumping teams by an average of 18 points per game
- They beat two nationally ranked teams – then-No. 2 Kansas and then-No. 13 Iowa – away from home (at a neutral site)
- They rank fifth in the Pomeroy Ratings, seventh in the RPI and 10th in the AP poll, out of 351 Division 1 teams
- JayVaughn Pinkston has emerged as one of the country’s most efficient players, scoring 17.8 points per game on 52 percent field goal shooting, while attempting more than eight free throws per contest
- Unlike many other powerhouse programs that reel in one-and-done players, Villanova has a reliable star senior in James Bell, who’s slowly improved every season and is now averaging 17.6 points per game in his final year
- Transfer Dylan Ennis and junior Darrun Hilliard are both shooting over 40 percent from three, making up for the shooting struggles of Ryan Arcidiacono, who has still buried some clutch shots and only figures to get better as the year progresses
- Freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins are giving Jay Wright valuable depth, combining for 12 points in 34 minutes per game
- The Wildcats have been excellent at both taking care of and sharing the ball, as evidenced by their turnover margin (plus-3.9 per game, 31st in the nation) and their assists per game (16.7, 20th in the nation)
- They’re holding opponents to 37.8 percent field goal percentage (22nd in the nation)
There are other stats that paint an impressive picture of Villanova’s start, but perhaps nothing has been as telling as the Wildcats’ last two Big 5 games. This past Saturday, Villanova went into tiny Hagan Arena and stomped a solid St. Joe’s team by 30, pouring in a whopping 59 points in the second half. Three days before that, in their Big 5 opener, the Wildcats cruised past Penn by 23 points despite Jay Wright saying that the Quakers played harder and executed better. (Wright has a habit of gushing about the team he just destroyed, but it’s still a good sign when a team can sleepwalk to an victory over a team they should easily beat.)
At this point, it’s hard not to think of La Salle as being anything but a big underdog against Villanova, especially on the road. And considering that the new Big East isn’t nearly as good as the old Big East (perhaps not even as good as the Atlantic 10?), the Wildcats will probably be favored for most of their games from here on out, barring a showdown at Syracuse on Dec. 28.
If the Wildcats can beat the Orange and then follow that up with a New Year’s Eve win over Butler, Villanova might very well go into 2014 not only as the favorite to win the Big East but as a legitimate Final Four contender.
Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.
A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.
The rest of the team included:
• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)
Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.
But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.
Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.
Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.
“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”
There’s a number of reasons why the Flyers have a five-game winning streak, why they’re playing better hockey, and why they own the No. 1 wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Perhaps the biggest reason of all is goaltender Steve Mason, who has won four of those games, compiling a 1.71 goals against average and .945 save percentage during that span.
Mason was named the NHL’s first “Star of the Week” on Monday. St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko and San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones were second and third stars.
“The team is on a roll right now and I’m a benefactor of that,” said Mason, who needs a win Tuesday against Florida to tie his career-high streak of five set Dec. 17-30 in 2013, during his first, full season as a Flyer.
“There’s strong play in front of me. The team is playing a little tighter in our defensive zone of late and making the goaltender reads that much more simple.
“Right now, there’s a comfort level with the guys in front of me … Winning five in a row is nice and we’d like to keep making ground in the standings.”
His four victories last week were tops in the NHL. Among them, he had a season-high 45 saves in a 3-2 shootout win against Boston.
Like many goalies, Mason prefers action. Games such as the 3-2 overtime win at Ottawa last week when the Senators only fired 21 shots, bother him.
“Those games, when you are not getting a lot of shots, the ones you do get will be a high-grade scoring chance,” he said. “And when you’re sitting around a few minutes not seeing the puck and all of a sudden see a chance like that …
“It’s more difficult to play [those games] than the games where there is a constant workload and you’re not thinking, but just playing. For myself personally, those are the games I enjoy the most. When I see a lot of pucks.”
The Flyers have seen dramatic improvement over the past month in their overall defensive play, from both their defensemen in down-low coverage in the slow and with their forwards on the backcheck.
Mason said the team has gone through “growing pains” with trying to integrate some younger bodies to the lineup this season – Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Nick Cousins come to mind.
“You have to familiar with everybody,” he said. “Have a constant lineup where guys go out shift after shift and night after night, you know what to expect from one another. When you have that kind of confidence in guys, it makes playing easier.”
Mason’s 4-2 victory at Nashville on Sunday saw him go over .500 for the first time this season with a 9-8-3 record.
His GAA is coming down at 2.76 while his save percentage has risen to .904.
“I was aware of it obviously, just because of the way the year started,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get it above the .900 level.
“We’re obviously going to continue to work at getting it even better. The way the team’s playing right now and the way everybody’s clicking, we’re going at a good pace right now.”