Killer Night for Philadelphia Basketball...Unless You're Villanova

Killer Night for Philadelphia Basketball...Unless You're Villanova

If you're anything like me, one television set simply wasn't going to cut it last night. From the Flyers to Sixers to Explorers to Hawks to Quakers to Wildcats, only a trip to Kulp's man cave was going to do Tuesday night's onslaught of action any justice.

Though the title above ignores Penn's 70-58 loss to Princeton, I plead for understanding—I was going for dramatic effect. Anyway, pettiness aside, last night was just a terrific night to be a basketball fan. Each game was replete with last second heroics, attempted buzzer beaters, overtime and, oh yeah, more overtime. Tournament recaps and previews for all our Big 5 boys after the jump...

Villanova Wildcats:

The last month has not been kind to the Wildcats, and last night's defeat at the hands of South Florida wrapped up a bad end to what has been thus far a disappointing season for the "Nation."

The Cat's have lost their last five in a row and seven of their last ten. The good news for coach Jay Wright and company is that this is really just sort of a blip on the radar. It's not like they're developing any sort of pattern. I mean, had they totally tanked and dropped four of their last six and been bounced in their first conference tourney game at MSG last season, then that would really be something to talk about. 

Okay, okay, I get it. You've been banged up. Yarou's bandage was a few inches from looking like an eye patch and the rest of the team has been fighting off nagging injuries for weeks. You're a lock for the big dance. Maybe you've even talked yourself into this early loss being a good thing. Maybe you're not worried.

Still, I'd be. They've fallen out of the Top 25; and, with the milieu of  Big East teams headed to the tournament alongside the nosedive the 'Cats have taken over the last month, it isn't unthinkable to see Nova drop further down the bracket than their (unofficial) #27 ranking would otherwise put them if the committee just stacked teams in order. Reasonable prediction: 'Nova is ripe for 6-11/7-10 upset ouster. I look forward to your comments. On with the show...

La Salle Explorers:

The  La Salle Explorers went and proved me (and a lot of other folks) wrong with their 75-73 double overtime win at St. Bonaventure last night. Though Dr G's squad started out hot with a 13-4 run, they would have to overcome two sizable deficits to qualify for the Boardwalk Hall rounds of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Down fourteen at the half and later trailing by seven with just 46 seconds remaining in the first period of overtime, La Salle found a way to press on and claim victory on a made Steve Weingarten 3-pointer in the waining moments of double OT. For more on the unlikely hero, check out this cool piece from the Inqy about Weingarten's story as a walk-on and coach Giannini's initial skepticism of his ability to play at the D-I level:

"It's an amazing story," said Giannini of Weingarten, who came to the Explorers in 2007 at Division III Connecticut College. "I swore to him that the chances of him ever playing or getting a scholarship were very slim." 

Not found in that story is the tale of the oppositely high-touted, yet more highly-recruited Aaric Murray, who happened to let the Bonaventure chants of "Muurrrrrrraaaayyyy" get the best of him in the first extra session. The La Salle big man had been yapping at the officials all night before they finally gave up and issued an overtime technical. Truly stunning.

La Salle advances to Atlantic City where they will take on the  #2-seeded Temple University Owls Friday night at 6:30 p.m. Keep reading/scrolling for an update on the Owls below.

Penn Quakers:

Things are unfortunately done for Penn fans after their loss to Princeton last evening. As such, there really isn't much to say here. What I will say is that Jerome Allen should commended for the job he did in turning this program around from the mess it was in when he took over.

I had the opportunity to see the Quakers play a few times this season. They gave my Owls a pretty good game back in January and defeated the St. Joseph's Hawks in a "this is our house" Palestra match up just a week later.

Losing Bernadini and Eggleston to graduation won't be easy, but another of year of Rosen at the point could mean good things. Personally, I'm pulling for Jerome. Plus, he rocks such sweet looks on the floor. Move over, Jay; your three-piece suit is starting to look a little dated.

St. Joseph's Hawks:

 Speaking of dated, you can't tell me Phil Martelli wasn't positively ecstatic after his team's win over George Washington at the Smith Center last night. Phil's been facing a barrage of criticism all year to the point where it started to look a little morbid for his program's future.

The upside is that there is absolutely no question that the young team has talent. Jones, Galloway and Aiken are solid pieces to build around and should, hopefully for Phil, get the program heading back in the right direction.

As for last night, a win on the road over GW is nothing to scoff at. The Colonials, like the majority of A-10 teams, have a history of playing well in their own building. Freshman revelation Langston Galloway lead the way with 15, helping St. Joe advance to Atlantic City for a date with the #1-seed Xavier Musketeers #4 Duquesne Dukes (Thanks to commenter "Hone" for the correction. Forgot the tourney doesn't re-seed.)

Temple University Owls:

The Owls are enjoying some much deserved time off after two injuries have forced them to play an undersized seven-man rotation for the last three weeks.

Much like Villanova, the Owls should be a lock for the tournament. What could drastically change over the next week, however, is just where they will fall in the bracket. In an interview with W.H.I.P. Temple Student Radio last Thursday, ESPN bracketologist and local legend Joe Lunardi suggested that the Owls could wind up anywhere from #6-10 seed depending on their play this weekend. But, neither he nor Dick Jerardi believe the Owls have enough in the tank with only seven guys to rip off three wins in three days. With Scootie Randall more than likely unavailable and Michael Eric lost for the season, winning a fourth-straight A-10 title might be a little too much to ask for this group of Owls.

Still, they will take their first step toward that goal Friday night against La Salle, a rematch of the two teams' final regular season game in which the Owls won by out-of-character final score of 90-82.

I'm headed down to Atlantic City this weekend to cover the action. Check back over the next few days for live reports from the A-10 tourney. For any of you who are considering making the short trip over the bridge and down the expressway,  Boardwalk Hall is such a spectacularly unique venue to watch a game. You won't be disappointed.

So, who's buying a strip and staring at this bad boy all weekend?

(Photo by Ron Cortes/Daily News)

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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