Yesterday, we opened up our season preview with Villanova’s first five games - most notably, a match-up with UCLA and the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic at the Mohegan Sun Arena. For me, seeing those games mapped out really sent home the absolute marathon Villanova will be running in just the first two weeks of the season. Well, it doesn’t get much easier.
After the Wildcats return from Connecticut, they will kick off their Big 5 slate against LaSalle, UPenn, and St. Joe’s, head to Madison Square Garden to take on the Syracuse Orange, and then fly to Waco, Texas for a Sunday afternoon tilt between the defending champion Baylor Bears. Hey, why not?
La Salle University Explorers
Head Coach: Ashley Howard (4th season)
Previous Season Record: 9-16, 6-11 A10 — Lost to St. Joe’s in A10 tournament
Key Players: Jhamir Brickus, Jack Clark, Sherif Kenney, Christian Ray, Clifton Moore
Key Departures: David Beatty (transferred to North Carolina A&T), Jared Kimbrough (transferred to Hartford), Scott Spencer (transferred to Tulane)
New Additions: Josh Nickelberry (transfer from Louisville), Mamadou Doucoure (transfer from Rutgers)
Date: Sunday, November 28, 6:00 p.m. (Palestra)
Preview: Villanova will open Big 5 play against Ashley Howard’s La Salle Explorers, a team that was all over the map last season. With impressive wins against Dayton and St. Louis - and miserable performances against Fordham and St. Peter’s - the Explorers have struggled mightily to string together consistent performances so far under Howard.
The main culprit has been La Salle’s defense, which ranked 245th in the country last year and dead last in the A-10. Put simply, La Salle couldn’t stop a nose bleed last season - particularly inside the arc. There is no reason to think the La Salle defense will be markedly improved this year though Clifton Moore, a big man transfer from Indiana, should benefit from another year in the system and will be asked to essentially plug what has become a gaping hole at the rim.
On offense, sophomore point guard Jhamir Brickus is back for his second year and will be asked to pilot an offense that was sub-150 in nearly every offensive category last year. The additions of Josh Nickelberry and Mamadou Doucoure will give the Explorers a much needed injection of talent but, put simply, La Salle will likely struggle again this year. However, we know the squad has the potential to maybe pull off a couple upsets during the season. It’s nearly impossible to imagine this being one of them though.
University of Pennsylvania Quakers
Head Coach: Steve Donahue (5th season)
Previous Season Record: Season canceled
Key Players: Jordan Dingle, Max Martz, Lucas Monroe, Bryce Washington
Key Departures: AJ Brodeur, Devon Goodman, Ryan Betley (transferred to Cal)
New Additions: Colin Chambers, Michael Moshkovitz (JUCO transfer), Clark Slajchert
Date: Wednesday, December 1, 7:00 p.m. (Palestra)
Preview: The Penn Quakers did not play last season given the Ivy League’s cancelation of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a year out from competition - and with a number of players returning from injuries - Penn is going to be a little rusty to say the least. Villanova will not be the first “real” team the Quakers will see - they open against Florida State and will be coming off a game against Arkansas when they face the Wildcats.
The Quakers are led by guard Jordan Dingle, the 2019-2020 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and forward Max Martz. Both Dingle and Martz are strong shooters and incredibly mature for just sophomores. Penn plays intelligent, deliberate ball with an emphasis on efficiency and protecting the rock. As the Ivy League finally returns to action, Penn projects to challenge Yale for the conference crown.
St. Joseph’s University Hawks
Head Coach: Billy Lange (2nd season)
Previous Season Record: 5-15, 3-9 in A10 - lost to Massachusetts in A10 tournament
Key Players: Jordan Hall, Taylor Funk, Dahmir Bishop, Cameron Brown
Key Departures: Ryan Daly
New Additions: Ejike Obinna (transfer from Vanderbilt), Charles Coleman (transfer from East Carolina)
Date: Saturday, December 4, 12:00 p.m. (Finneran Pavilion)
Preview: We can start by noting that Ryan Daly is finally gone. Good. Last year, St. Joe’s opened the season with 8 straight losses - including a 20 point loss to Villanova - before finally squeaking by #240 Albany...before then losing 6 straight games. Inexplicably, the Hawks then picked off Dayton and Richmond - the A-10’s top squads - before losing to Massachusetts by 40. Like, what?
Anyway, the Hawks do not project to be much better this year. With Daly gone, St. Joe’s will lean heavily on Taylor Funk and Jordon Hall - a player who tested the NBA waters/committed to transfer before returning to the Hawks. ‘Nova fans will remember that St. Joe’s attempts to run an offense similar to Villanova’s - space the floor, shoot threes - but does not have the personnel to make shots. With Daly gone, Funk will have to do the heavy lifting on that end.
The chuck-and-duck nature of St. Joe’s offense led to miserable performances on the defensive end - especially in transition. The Hawks’ defense finished 308th in effective FG% and 341th in Block% - translation: not a soul was minding the store. In 20 games last year, the Hawks gave up 80+ points in 14 of them. Villanova will have absolutely no issue whatsoever scoring points in this one and - without a real deep threat (beyond Funk) - it’s hard to see St. Joe’s being able to keep up.
Head Coach: Jim Boeheim (46th season)
Previous Season Record: 18-10, 9-7 in ACC - lost to #5 Houston in NCAAT as 11 seed
Key Players: Buddy Boeheim, Jimmy Boeheim, Joseph Girard, Jesse Edwards
Key Departures: Marek Dolezaj, Quincy Gerrier, Alan Griffin, Kadary Richmond (transferred to Seton Hall)
New Additions: Benny Williams, Cole Swider (hey, we know him!)
Date: Tuesday, December 7, 9:00 p.m. (Madison Square Garden - Jimmy V Classic)
Preview: The Wildcats will face their old conference foe - the Syracuse Orange - in the late game of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. Is this the Cole Swider revenge game?
The buzz around Syracuse this year is the squad’s deep shooters - Buddy Boeheim, Joe Girard and yes, Cole Swider - make up a dangerous trio of outside threats. But, as we saw with Swider at Villanova, the stroke is meaningless if you can’t get off...amirite? Basically, while the talent is there, Boeheim will have to find a way to effectively space the floor to free up his shooters, all without a real facilitator.
On defense, the zone will obviously be back but ‘Cuse is reeling from its personnel losses on the defensive end. The losses of Kadary Richmond and Alan Griffin - two rangy guards - will be felt heavily on the perimeter and Villanova should be able to penetrate the zone enough to open up some shots.
Basically, Syracuse - with its gimmick defense and arsenal of shooters - can topple any team on any given night. Add in a game in New York City at the World’s Most Famous Arena? Well, as they say, you could probably throw out the record books for this one. While Syracuse projects to be a middle-of-the-road ACC team (before undoubtedly storming into March as a double-digit seed and making a Final Four), this game has all the makings for a potential classic.
#8 Baylor Bears
Head Coach: Scott Drew (18th season)
Previous Season Record: 28-2, 13-1 in Big 12 - National Champions
Key Players: Matthew Mayer, Adam Flagler, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua
Key Departures: Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, Mark Vital
New Additions: James Akinjo (transfer from Arizona), Kendall Brown, Langston Love
Date: Sunday, December 12, 3:00 p.m. (Ferrell Center - Waco, TX)
Preview: Well, fortunately for Villanova, these are not the Baylor Bears from last season. While the ‘Cats put up a valiant effort in the Sweet Sixteen, nothing could stop the Bears from capturing the school’s first national title with a convincing win over the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Thankfully, as the ‘Cats now pack up to head to Waco, Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, and MaCio Teague will not be there to meet them.
That being said, the Bears enter the season as the AP’s 8th ranked team and project to challenge both Kansas and Texas for the Big 12 crown. Scott Drew has the challenge - a challenge with which Jay Wright is familiar - of filling holes caused by a post-title exodus. Drew has brought in Arizona transfer, and former Hoya, James Akinjo to improve the backcourt and will look to freshman standout Jordan Love to replace some of the perimeter production.
Inside, JTT is back with Flo Thamba while Matthew Mayer, mullet and all, is back as well. Additionally, Drew has brought in 5-star Kendall Brown, top-100 recruit Jeremy Sochan, and even nabbed Dale Bonner, a first-team all conference guard from DII program Fairmont State. Basically, Scott Drew has restocked the cupboard and has plenty to work with as he tries to replace the lost production.
It’s difficult to fully preview this match-up given Baylor’s impressive depth and the fact that Scott Drew himself will likely be tinkering with this line-up through the early part of the season. Jay Wright and the Wildcats are familiar with James Akinjo and may benefit from having seen the Bears in March last year. Overall, this seems like a winnable game for Villanova - a true road game that, like the UCLA match-up, should age well as the season progresses.