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Verlin: Thoughts on the City 6's opening month

12/03/2019, 8:00am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)


Spent the few days after Thanksgiving recovering from eating too much turkey (and too many of my grandmother’s clams casino), getting some work done, and watching some basketball –– specifically, Temple in the Orlando Classic, Penn in the Wooden Legacy Classic, and a couple other assorted games.

As it’s been a few weeks since I’ve written about the City 6 at large, I figured it was about time to share my latest thoughts on each of the six squads, how things are going so far, and whatever else comes to mind.

Cam Wynter (above) and Drexel are having some turnover issues early on this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Drexel Dragons
-- The Dragons haven’t been two games over .500 since the final day of the 2013-14 season, which was a season-ending loss to Northeastern in a year they came out of the gates 7-2 but finished 16-14. When they took the court on Saturday at UMBC, it was 2,093 days since they’d had at least two more wins than losses, at least in terms of their overall record. And instead, they looked the worst they’d been all season in an 85-60 loss. A 33-5 run that spanned 10 minutes might have been the worst stretch I’ve ever seen a City 6 team play. Honestly, I’d written most of what follows here before that game, but I needed to go back in and add a whole lotta qualifiers after how bad they were against the Retrievers. The next two (vs. Princeton and La Salle at home) are both winnable, but not if they play like that.

-- Until the UMBC game, that was the most bullish I’ve been on Drexel in quite a few years. Outside of Zach Walton (12.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg), the Dragons return everybody from this team, and they’ve got great underclassmen in sophomores Cam Wynter (8.5 ppg, 5.9 apg) and Matej Juric (8.0 ppg, 2.9 apg) plus freshmen Mate Okros (7.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg) and T.J. Bickerstaff (6.9 rpg, 4.9 rpg). Oh, and they’ve got James Butler (13.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg) back in the post for another year. If Spiker and staff can develop this group over the next 12 months, they could be a problem in the CAA this year and a real factor in 2020-2021. But they need to start taking some steps forward, not backwards.

-- Thought that Drexel might actually be figuring out its turnover issues from early in the season. The Dragons gave it up 60 times in their first three games, but then had a more manageable dozen against Rutgers. Then came a 30-turnover disaster against Stephen F. Austin –– but the Lumberjacks, who just beat No. 1 Duke, force more turnovers than anyone else in the country, 25 per game. So considering Drexel followed that up with a nine-turnover effort against Bryant, it’s possible the SFA game wasn’t as much of a regression as it seemed. Then they gave it away 20 times against UMBC, so…. *shrug emoji*

-- One thing Drexel’s definitely figuring out is how to get a stop every now and again. The Dragons were one of the worst teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency last year, allowing 1.13 points per possession (327th in Division I), which totally negated an offense that had indeed improved under Zach Spiker’s first three years. Before the UMBC game they were down to 1.02 ppp this year, which was a more-respectable 230th in Division I; after it, they were at 1.039 (274th). But they still have a chance to improve: the length of the 6-6 Okros and 6-9 Bickerstaff has made a difference, and those guys should only get better the longer they’re around. Juric, a 5-11 guard, is the team’s best on-ball defender, and he’ll see a lot of minutes for that reason alone over the next 2.5 seasons.

La Salle Explorers
-- Okay, so the Gulf Coast Showcase isn’t the Battle 4 Atlantis or Preseason NIT in terms of early-season exempt tournament prestige, but still a great showing for the Explorers to go down to Florida and knock off Murray State, Wright State and South Alabama in the span of three days earlier this week to not only claim the title but improve to 4-2 in the process. Keep in mind it wasn’t until Jan. 23 last year, in the Explorers’ 18th game of Ashley Howard’s first season, that they won their fourth game. Win No. 5 was delayed by a very good Villanova squad (though it was only an 11-point road loss), but there’s a winnable stretch to follow: @ Drexel, vs. Morgan State, vs. Wagner, vs. Fairleigh Dickinson, vs. Bucknell (at the Palestra) heading into A-10 play.

-- Talk about balance. Sophomore forward Ed Croswell is the Explorers’ leading scorer: at 10.3 ppg. Six other players are averaging between 5.7 ppg and 9.4 ppg, and a few of those who aren’t –– namely, freshmen Ayinde Hikim (5.3 ppg) and Christian Ray (2.6 ppg) have proven they can be double-figure scorers either in high school or early this season, and both have the minutes and opportunities to do so. And it’s a super-balanced rotation, as well: while Croswell is the team’s leading scorer, he’s fifth on the team in minutes, and 10 different players are averaging at least 12 mpg. Still to be determined: will that hurt them when they need a bucket in a late-game situation, or will it help them because it could be anybody?

-- The Explorers are having some turnover problems (16.4/game) and aren’t great on the glass, getting out-rebounded this season by 1.7 boards/game, but there’s one thing they’re doing really well: shooting treys. La Salle’s taking more than two dozen 3-pointers per game on average, and knocking them down at a strong 39.2% rate. Saul Phiri (47.1%), Scott Spencer (44.8%), and Brandon Stone (40%) are all above the team average, and Sherif Kenney (37.5%) isn’t far behind. At any point, Howard can put four guys on the floor who are serious threats from deep, and that’s a valuable asset in today’s game.

Jordan Dingle (above) has been named Ivy League Rookie of the Week three times already. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Penn Quakers
-- The Quakers are off to a bit of a strange start, with three wins over teams ranked in the top 102 on KenPom, all of which came on the road or on neutral sites, butthey’ve also lost two games to teams ranked 160 and lower, also on the road. They’ll have to get used to traveling, as they’re playing just 10 out of their 30 games this whole season at home, including the normal seven Ivy League games, two Big 5 games, and one D-III opponent. Ultimately, for this team it’s all about the Ivy slate, though the Big 5 could be in their grasp yet again –– if they can get through Villanova on the road on Dec. 4. More importantly, while they’ve already shown their ability to beat anybody, the Quakers need to tighten up their results against their non-marquee opponents to ensure themselves a good seed at the Ivy tourney in March.

-- Holy moly, Jordan Dingle is good. The freshman out of Blair Academy (N.J.) has been the Quakers’ starting point guard from the jump, averaging a team-leading 17.3 ppg plus 4.1 rpg and 2.7 apg, shooting 45.1% overall and 35.3% from deep. There’s no doubt that A.J. Brodeur (16.9 ppg/8.1 rpg/5.3 apg) is still the team’s best player, but Dingle certainly represents their future, and that future looks as good as his already-displayed ability to hit big shots late in games. He’s turning it over a bit much (3.9/game) but that’s to be expected of a freshman with the ball in his hands so much.

-- Dingle isn’t the only freshman who’s off to a strong start. Max Martz is averaging 5.3 ppg and hitting 47.4% from deep after missing much of the preseason due to injury, and Lucas Monroe has been helping on the defensive end while chipping in 3.3 ppg and 3.4 rpg. And there’s also Jonah Charles, who’s out with an injury but should make an impact within the team’s top 10 if he can work his way back before February. And while Max Lloyd-Lorca has barely seen the court, the long-term outlook is good for him to slot into Brodeur’s spot in a year or two.

Saint Joseph’s
-- I don’t think anybody really knew what to expect from Billy Lange’s Hawks this season, with so many new faces both on the coaching staff and on the roster, with an offseason exodus after the firing of Phil Martelli leaving the new staff scrambling for pieces in the spring. Even double-digit wins seemed like a stretch. Then they came out and won two of their first three games, including a win at UConn, and suddenly double-digit wins didn’t seem crazy at all. But the Hawks are 2-5 through seven games after losing their last four, and it’s clear it’s going to take this group some time to figure out how to win on a consistent basis. Ryan Daly (20.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 5.1 apg) is going to keep them in every game they play, but wins might be scattershot.

-- With only 10 scholarship players on the roster –– and especially with one of them a former walk-on and three of them freshmen –– the one thing St. Joe’s really couldn’t afford this year was injuries. So junior forward Taylor Funk’s hand injury that’ll have him out “indefinitely” and potentially for the entire season is a double-blow: it takes away the Hawks’ third-leading scorer (9.4 ppg) and rebounder (5.0 rpg) and one of their few big bodies and floor-stretchers in the frontcourt. That’s going to put even more strain on the rest of the starters and rotation, and make things just that much tougher in Lange’s first year.

-- The good thing is, all three freshmen on Lange’s roster are real players who will be important building blocks for this program moving forward. Rahmir Moore (10.6 ppg, .538 3PT%) has stepped right into the role as a complementary scorer to Daly who can score 20-plus on his own, Chereef Knox (7.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg) can stretch the floor as well (.385 3PT%) and Cameron Brown (6.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) is a versatile defender who hasn’t really yet shown the type of scoring potential he’s got. When Neumann-Goretti’s Jordan Hall arrives next year, he’ll bring even more versatility and shooting ability at 6-8, and 6-11 Anton Jansson will add much-needed size, and I hear he can shoot it as well.

Alani Moore II (above) has enjoyed a breakout senior season thus far for Temple. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Temple Owls
-- Last year, the Owls won 23 games on the strength of Shizz Alston’s leadership and scoring, and a defense that held opponents to .995 points per possession, which was 85th in the country  according to KenPom. With basically the same personnel –– and there’s no questioning Alston’s effort last year –– Temple has looked even more aggressive and effective defensively in Aaron McKie’s first year as head coach. After holding Texas A&M to 42 points in a 23-point win on Friday and then Davidson to 53 on Sunday, KenPom has the Owls 31st in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (.901 points per possession), a marked increase from last year’s already-solid number.

-- I’ll give senior guard Quinton Rose (14.6 ppg/5.4 rpg) credit –– he had a good weekend in Orlando, especially in the two wins. But he was 9-of-20 on 2s and 2-of-6 on 3s in those wins, continuing a troubling trend that’s seen him make fewer two-pointers (.367) and shooting worse overall (.355) than almost anybody else on the Owls. Far too often, Rose goes for difficult shots early in the shot clock, settling for fall-away jumpers against double teams. Rose does have a great ability to get past a defender and into the lane, but has to take advantage of the defenses’ collapsing to find teammates for shots rather than force things up himself.

-- On the flip side, the Owls’ other senior guard, Alani Moore II, is having a career year after two disappointing seasons for the once-touted prospect. Moore, a 5-10 combo guard out of D.C., averaged 6.5 ppg in 32 games (23 starts) in his first season at Temple, but that had been the high-water mark. After hitting 41% of his 3-pointers as a freshman, he hit just 30% over the next two years, and was unable to really make a steady offensive impact. But this year, Moore’s found his rhythm again, averaging 11.4 ppg and hitting 36% of his 3-pointers (18-of-50) through seven games, including a 22-point outing against Maryland and 14-point follow-up against A&M. It was also nice to see junior transfer James “Monty” Scott get into the double-figure scoring column for the first time as an Owl, going for 11 points in 21 minutes off the bench against A&M; he scored 27 in three games (9.0/game) in Orlando.

Villanova Wildcats
-- I’ll be honest, I’ve only watched about a game-and-a-half of Villanova in total, between a mix of not being home when they’re playing to watching other games when they’re on, as well as only being able to devote so much time to hoops these days and Villanova getting a ton of attention in general. I think what’s clear about this group is that Jay Wright has one he can build for two years, with no seniors on the roster and no clear candidates to go pro after this season; freshman forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (13.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.5 apg) could be the most likely, but he’s not really a draft board name at the moment. They’re still certainly good enough to get to the NCAAs this year and even make a run, but it seems to reason that the 2020-21 season would be Wright’s next great shot at national championship No. 3.

-- Check out Kevin Cooney’s column from Monday (Dec. 2) on Collin Gillespie and his importance to the 2019-20 ‘Cats. 

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