If you haven't been paying attention, No. 10 Villanova is really good at basketball right now

If you haven't been paying attention, No. 10 Villanova is really good at basketball right now

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.

Phillies can exhale after bullpen nearly blows 10-0 lead

Phillies can exhale after bullpen nearly blows 10-0 lead

BOX SCORE

The moment when the ball struck first baseman Tommy Joseph’s glove for the final out of the Phillies 10-8 win over the Mets — dealing a major blow to their rival’s wild card hopes in the process — felt more like a collective exhalation than a moment of celebration (see Instant Replay).
 
Two days earlier, the bullpen faltered suddenly. A game-tying two-run homer by Jose Reyes in the ninth was the first body blow. The game-winning three-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera was the knockout.
 
Saturday, the collapse occurred over the course of five innings as the Phillies let a lead that was once 10-0 slip away, one drawn-out at-bat after another.
 
Missing, of course, was the moment of impact in the proverbial slow-motion car crash, thanks to well-placed sinkers and four-seamers from Michael Mariot.
 
“The bullpen’s been sputtering,” manager Pete Mackanin said in an understatement.
 
Joely Rodriguez entered in the sixth inning with a 10-4 lead to face a string of lefties and it quickly became apparent that he did not have his fastball. A middle-in four-seamer that caught too much of the plate was slapped for a double by Mets shortstop Gavin Cecchini, his first major-league hit and a run. A second run scored when a little dribbler by third baseman T.J. Rivera died on the third base line, leaving Rodriguez with no play.
 
“He just didn’t throw quality strikes,” Mackanin said.
 
Even the normally-reliable Hector Neris struggled on Saturday. In his 77th outing of the season, Neris walked two straight batters and then surrendered an RBI double to Cecchini of his own which narrowed the lead to 10-7 and thrust the uncertainty of a save situation onto Mackanin.
 
Mariot was given first crack at the ninth inning one day after Mackanin said he would give Jeanmar Gomez a break from closing duties.
 
Mariot’s audition got off to a rough start. He gave up a pinch-hit solo home run to Jay Bruce — who had been mired in an 0-15 slump — with one out in the ninth and then walked Eric Campbell and Michael Conforto after a pair of grueling at-bats that lasted a combined 18 pitches.
 
The two hitters fouled off eight of Mariot’s pitches and took several four-seamers that just missed the plate.
 
“I was pretty upset about that,” Mariot said of the four-seamers that missed. “I was hoping to get at least a swing or maybe a call on those. Talking to [catcher] A.J. [Ellis], I think he said that they missed but I was hoping at least one of them to get called a strike.”
 
Gomez was up in the Phillies’ bullpen but Mariot ensured that Mackanin wouldn’t need to throw the recently-struggling closer back into the fire in a high-stress situation.
 
Mariot was able to locate his fastball when he needed to most. He fooled Lucas Duda with a two-seamer that the slugger popped out to Freddy Galvis and got Travis D’Arnaud to ground a four-seamer outside right back to him.
 
“I just told myself: ‘keep throwing strikes and good things will happen,’” Mariot said.
 
He threw just enough strikes to ensure that the Phillies didn’t end up on the wrong end of what would have been the Mets’ biggest comeback in team history.

Find great deals on Philadelphia Phillies tickets with TicketIQ. Buy cheap Phillies tickets with no hidden fees for all games on their 2016 schedule. 

College football wrap: Auburn upsets No. 18 LSU with controversial finish

usa-gus-malzahn.jpg
USA Today Images

College football wrap: Auburn upsets No. 18 LSU with controversial finish

AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn was ready to try anything to get a win for his Auburn Tigers.

Malzahn relinquished offensive play-calling duties. Following his daughters' advice, he traded his usual game-day visor for a cap. And then, when the clock expired and LSU players were celebrating an apparent last-second win, the Auburn coach put all his faith in a ruling he couldn't control.

Daniel Carlson kicked six field goals and Auburn beat No. 18 LSU 18-13 on Saturday night after officials ruled Danny Etling's apparent last-gasp scoring pass came after time expired.

Malzahn said he knew there were only zeroes on the clock before the snap to Etling.

"I was pretty confident time had expired," Malzahn said. "It was just a matter of going to the booth and confirming it."

Etling rolled to his right and found D.J. Shark in the back of the end zone on a 15-yard pass, setting off a short-lived celebration by LSU players (see full recap).

Hornibrook proves he's ready in Badgers' win over Spartans
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- By the time Alex Hornibrook's first start was over, there wasn't much question about whether he could handle one of the toughest road tests in the Big Ten.

Hornibrook threw for 195 yards and a touchdown, and 11th-ranked Wisconsin turned its early-season showdown with No. 8 Michigan State into a rout, beating the Spartans 30-6 on Saturday.

"You've got to have respect for a guy whose first start is against a Michigan State defense," Wisconsin running back Corey Clement said.

"He's going to come out the next game and do even better. I think he's just getting his feet wet."

The freshman quarterback outplayed fifth-year senior Tyler O'Connor, his Michigan State counterpart. The Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) were the better team in the first half and then outscored the Spartans 17-0 in the third quarter (see full recap).

No. 23 Rebels find their rhythm, beat No. 12 Georgia 45-14
OXFORD, Miss. -- Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly faked the handoff and then took off running toward the end zone. A few seconds and 41 yards later, the quarterback had cruised through the middle of the Georgia defense and into the end zone untouched.

It was pretty much that easy for the Rebels all afternoon. Ole Miss finally built a lead it couldn't give away.

No. 23 Ole Miss rolled to a 45-14 victory over No. 12 Georgia on Saturday, building a 31-0 lead by halftime and a 45-0 advantage by midway through the fourth quarter.

Kelly threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns. Ole Miss (2-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) broke a 10-game losing streak in the series dating to 1996 (see full recap).

Dobbs rallies No. 14 Vols to 38-28 win over No. 19 Gators
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- This time, Tennessee delivered the comeback.

And in the process, the Volunteers took out 11 years' worth of frustration on Florida.

Joshua Dobbs accounted for five second-half touchdowns Saturday and No. 14 Tennessee erased a 21-point deficit to beat No. 19 Florida 38-28 and end their 11-game losing streak in the annual series.

"I didn't see anybody blink," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Nobody flinched. They just kept playing."

This marks the first time Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) has beaten Florida (3-1, 1-1) since 2004. The Volunteers had lost to Florida by one point each of the last two years despite leading in the fourth quarter of both games (see full recap).