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)

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.