Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
The countdown is on to the start of the 2017-18 college basketball season, with less than six weeks of practices remaining until the country’s 350-plus Division I programs take the court for meaningful action for the first time since April.
This week, we’ll be going through the City 6 from a number of lenses, taking a look at some big-picture storylines before we go through each program in detail over the next couple of weeks.
Six Position Battles to Watch
Drexel's Kari Jonsson (above) averaged 10.1 ppg and shot 43.6 percent from 3-point range as a freshman. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Drexel: Shooting Guard
The point guard situation at Drexel is simple: sophomore Kurk Lee Jr., the runner-up for CAA Rookie of the Year last season, is entrenched at the position after averaging 14.9 ppg and 5.0 apg in his debut campaign. But there are quite a few options to fill the two spots alongside him on the perimeter. Last year, junior Sammy Mojica (11.2 ppg) started at one off-guard position, while another freshman, Kari Jonsson, who had a solid first collegiate year as well (10.1 ppg, .436 3PT%) played the majority of the minutes at the other. This year, both have quite a bit more competition for minutes.
A pair of transfers, Troy Harper (Campbell) and Tramaine Isabell (Missouri) spent last year on the Drexel bench, biding their time as the Dragons went 9-23 in Zack Spiker’s first season as head coach. But now each are ready to step in and perform, and each have something to prove. For Harper, a Neumann-Goretti grad, it’s a return home after two seasons in North Carolina; he averaged 13.5 ppg as a sophomore, though he made just 29.3 percent of his 133 3-pointers. Isabell averaged 6.2 ppg in 16.3 mpg off the bench as a sophomore at Mizzou, though he also struggled shooting the ball (.255 3PT%).
The x-factor in all of it is Miles Overton, the former St. Joe’s Prep star who’s struggled to find consistency in his college career thus far. The 6-4 wing didn’t see much time at Wake Forest before leaving midway through his sophomore year; after sitting out for three semesters, he finally returned to the court for Drexel last year. He averaged 9.5 ppg for the Dragons but shot just 25.2 percent from 3-point range before a February wrist injury shut him down for the remainder of the year. There’s certainly minutes for more than just two or three of these guards, but there’s not going to be enough for all five to play as much as they’d want.
La Salle: Guard(s)
The Explorers’ roster is an interesting mix of veterans with a lot of experience -- five players on the roster are in their fifth year in college -- and those with basically none; the remaining six available scholarship players have a grand total of 300 minutes of Division I basketball under their belts, and all of those are from sophomores Isiah Deas and Saul Phiri. This year, in order for La Salle to have a successful season, at least one of them will need to go from little-used reserve to key member of the rotation.
The point guard situation is fairly clear, with four such players on the roster: redshirt senior Amar Stukes, senior Johnnie Shuler, redshirt junior Pookie Powell and freshman Jamir Moultrie; Marquette transfer Traci Carter, sitting this year out due to NCAA regulations, would make that five out of 12 if he were able to play. In John Giannini’s four-out offense, the Explorers can get away with playing two of them at once. Redshirt senior B.J. Johnson (17.6 ppg/6.3 rpg) will eat up most minutes at one of the two wing spots, leaving room for one of either the 6-6 Deas or 6-4 Phiri to take up the starting spot vacated by graduated seniors Jordan Price; 6-6 freshman Dajour Joseph will push for minutes on the wing as well.
Going back to the point guard situation, there’s still some competition to be had -- last year, Powell averaged 13.7 ppg/3.1 apg in 31.2 mpg and Stukes averaged 8.1 ppg/4.3 apg in 31.4 mpg. Shuler, who had put together a solid sophomore campaign in 2015-16 (9.6 ppg/3.7 rpg/3.0 apg) became a backup, averaging 2.8 ppg in 12.9 mpg as a junior; he’ll have to battle with Moultrie, a talented 6-2 guard out of Bishop McNamara (Md.) now in the fold, for those minutes this time around.
Penn: Point Guard
The Quakers looked discombobulated during the first six weeks of the Ivy League slate last year, losing their first six Ancient Eight contests. Then head coach Steve Donahue made a major adjustment to his lineup, putting freshmen Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman into featured roles alongside classmate A.J. Brodeur and cutting his rotation to eight. That resulted in five straight wins and an improbable appearance in the inaugural Ivy league playoffs, where the Quakers gave heavy favorite Princeton quite the scare in a 72-64 OT semifinal loss. The only loss due to graduation was that of wing Matt Howard (12.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg), and the addition of another talented freshman class means Donahue’s got more work to do to figure out the winning rotation for this season.
Certainly the toughest call will be at point guard. Senior Darnell Foreman has carved his way from reserve to starter over the course of his sophomore and junior seasons, averaging 8.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg and 3.4 apg, as a junior while starting the final three months of the season. The speedy 5-10 Goodman averaged 8.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg and 3.0 apg in his nine games in the rotation to close out the year; the two of them handled the entirety of the duties during Penn’s successful streak.
But now there’s also the presence of Antonio Woods, a junior guard who averaged 9.1 ppg in 41 games before he was declared academically ineligible midway through his sophomore year in Jan. 2016. Freshman Jelani Williams, who tore his ACL early in his senior year at Sidwell Friends, could also be in the mix if he’s healthy enough. Ultimately, Donahue can’t play more than two different point guards at one time, and there are not a lot of minutes up for grabs at the other perimeter spots either.
St. Joe's Pierfrancesco Oliva (above) is one of three power forwards who can shoot the ball on the Hawks' roster. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Saint Joseph’s -- Power Forward
The Hawks’ success two years ago -- winning 28 games, the Atlantic 10 tournament and an NCAA Tournament game -- was heavily reliant on having big men who could shoot the ball, namely Isaiah Miles and Pierfrancesco Oliva. But last offseason, after Miles and Pada Ndao graduated, a chronic knee condition forced Oliva to undergo season-ending surgery, and St. Joe’s was left without a ‘4’ or ‘5’ on the roster who could step out and make shots.
With Oliva back to full health and freshmen Taylor Funk and Anthony Longpré now on the roster, Phil Martelli suddenly has three underclassmen standing 6-8 or 6-9 who all have similar offensive skillsets. Oliva would seem to have the inside track for a starting spot, after seeing solid minutes (16.5/game) during a freshman season in 2015-16 where he averaged 4.0 ppg and 3.7 rpg. But the coaching staff is high on both of the rookies; Longpré, a 6-9 reserve on the Canadian team which won the FIBA U19 championship this summer, has especially impressed in summer workouts.
There are also a few other big men on the roster who are going to eat into those minutes. Martelli has noted the improved physique of fifth-year senior Jai Williams, a 6-9 center, and fourth-year junior Markell Lodge (6-7) is the most athletic player on the roster. Those two combined to play nearly 30 mpg last year, and they’ll fight to keep as many of those as possible.
Temple: Guard Rotation
Owls head coach Fran Dunphy might have the biggest puzzle to put together in the city in terms of what his backcourt rotation will look like, with five guards who all are aiming to fill two or three spots on the court. If Dunphy can put the pieces together the right way, it’s a group that has the potential to be extremely effective; if the chemistry is wrong, it could backfire.
Last year, the Owls were without Josh Brown after the senior point guard and likely starter tore his Achilles tendon and required offseason surgery. In his absence, Levan Shawn Alston Jr. enjoyed a breakout sophomore season, averaging 13.9 ppg and 4.1 apg, playing an astounding 36.4 mpg. Temple also had to rely heavily on a pair of freshmen, Alani Moore II (6.5 ppg/25.8 mpg) and Quinton Rose (10.1 ppg/24.8 mpg), both of whom had several standout performances.
Now, Brown is back, and if he’s back to the form he showed as a junior in 2015-16 (8.3 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4.8 rpg), he’ll be the one with the ball in his hands. Alston Jr. can shift to the ‘2’ guard -- where he might be better suited, despite a strong assist-to-turnover ratio last year -- and Rose can play the ‘3’, but he’s a ‘3’ who could be best with the ball in his hands. Adding to the backcourt is a talented freshman, 6-4 Nate Pierre-Louis, who could push for time at the ‘2’ and ‘3’ if he can make shots and play decent enough defense.
Villanova: 8th Man
Most of Villanova’s rotation seems fairly clear as we head into the meat of the preseason. Starting at point guard will be junior Jalen Brunson, the former five-star recruit who’s on the short list of best players in the city (we named him Preseason City 6 PoTY) after averaging 14.7 ppg and 4.1 apg as a sophomore. Starting up front should be stud freshman Omari Spellman, who sat out last year due to an academic technicality stemming from high school; the 6-10 post player was a top-20 recruit in the 2016 class. Mikal Bridges, Donte Divincenzo and Eric Paschall will all likely start, depending on the health of Phil Booth, who missed last season following knee surgery; either way, all four are major parts of Nova’s plan this year.
So really, what’s up in the air about the Wildcats is just how deep that rotation goes, and who becomes those valuable 7th and 8th men off the bench. Jay Wright has made it clear that he’s not the type to play 10 or 11 on a regular basis, and though he’s got that many able bodies on the roster, at least one or two are going to have to bide their time to be major contributors. This year’s candidates are freshmen Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, plus sophomore Dylan Painter.
Of the four, Samuels seems the most likely of the bunch to get minutes, as he fits right into Villanova’s mold: the 6-6 wing out of the Rivers School (Mass.) has close to (if not over) a 7-foot wingspan and is an excellent defender at multiple positions who also will understand his role in the Wildcats’ offense. Painter, a 6-10 post who played spare minutes last year, and the 6-8 Neumann-Goretti grad Cosby-Roundtree will battle it out for the role of backup center to Spellman, though Wright can always go with Paschall as a small-ball ‘5’ if needed. Finally, there’s Gillespie, the Archbishop Wood grad and best recruiting story in the city last year, who could carve out his own few minutes in the backcourt; if Booth’s knee acts up again, Gillespie might be forced to play a decently large role.
Coming tomorrow: New Faces to Know