Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (above) and VIllanova are the first City 6 team to open their season, Weds. night vs. Boston College. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
Unlike as abruptly as last season ended, the 2020-21 basketball season has been sneaking up on us for seemingly months.
Of course, the Covid-19 shutdown halted the 2019-20 season before March Madness could erupt. And, if the cancellation of last season seems like an eternity ago, perhaps the hopeful promise of the upcoming season that starts this week can push back the disappointment of the NCAA tournament being cancelled last March even further in our collective memories.
Although the Ivy League, which was the first conference to shut down in mid-March, announced weeks ago it wouldn’t compete this season, which leaves Penn without games and the Palestra quiet, the rest of the City Six tips off this Thanksgiving week. Naturally, players, coaches, fans and hoop writers are thankful.
Obviously, the status of schedule games are just one positive Covid test result away (the Clemson-Florida State football game was cancelled Saturday with the Tigers already in Tallahassee after one Clemson player test results came back positive for Covid). Still, like Colin Gillespie leading a fastbreak for Villanova and scanning the floor for cutters, this season is charging ahead and so are the previews for Drexel, La Salle, Saint Joseph, Temple and Villanova season openers.
Wednesday, November 25
Villanova vs. Boston College (at Mohegan Sun., 7 p.m., ESPN)
Another reminder how tentative and fluid the schedule really is from day-today was also served on Sunday when Baylor coach Scott Drew tested positive for Covid-19. Originally, associate head coach Jerome Tang was to run the show for the Bears at Mohegan Sun, but it now appears Rhode Island will replace Baylor. On Thursday, Villanova is scheduled to play Baylor or Arizona State.
But first up for Villanova, ranked No. 3 in the preseason Associated Press poll, is a matchup against former Big East rival Boston College in the 2K Empire Sports Classic that benefits the Wounded Warrior Project at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Interestingly, the Cats and Eagles have played just once since Boston College bolted in 2005 for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which was a NCAA tourney Sweet 16 game in 2006 that Villanova won 60-59 in OT.
The Wildcats, who were 24-7 last year and the Big East regular season champions, were the only team to place two on the first-team preseason Big East team as Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl were selected. In addition, Justin Moore was chosen to the second team.
Not surprisingly, Jay Wright’s squad was tabbed as the conference favorite.
Gillespie, a 6-foot-3 seasoned senior guard from Archbishop Wood, averaged 15.1 points and 4.5 assists - fifth best in the Big East – last season. Gillespie, who was named second team All-Big East as a junior, protects the ball and creates for his teammates with the best point guards in the country. He ranked fourth in assist/turnover ratio at 2.3 last season. Now, in his third season as a starter, he is poised to be mention in the conversation of great Nova guards.
Robinson-Earl, a 6-9 sophomore, was the league’s Freshman of the Year last season after posting10.5 points and 9.4 rebounds while collecting nine double-doubles in his inaugural season. He flirted with entering the NBA draft and now certainly is capable of knocking on the door of being a lottery pick with a season of development under Wright.
Moore, a 6-4 guard, made the league’s All-Freshman Team last year after averaging 11.3 points. He teams with Gillespie to give the Cats the best backcourt in the city.
The talented trio of Gillespie, Robinson-Earl and Moore should be enough to carry the load against Boston College, which finished 13-19 last year.
Although the Eagles were 7-13 in the ACC last year, they did post solid wins over Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech and N.C. State.
Coach Jim Christian, who is in his seventh season as head coach in Chestnut Hill, will rely on his backcourt to with their individual battles against Nova to win the game, which is a favorable matchup for the Wildcats.
BC sophomore guard Jay Heath averaged 13.1 points a game last year while junior guard Wynston Tabbs didn’t play last season due to injury. Gillespie and Moore wins this matchup going away.
Drexel at Penn State (Postponed)
Ed. Note: This game was scheduled for 1 PM Wednesday, but now is postponed to a later date.
Drexel will be catching the Nittany Lions in their first game without coach Pat Chambers, who resigned last month following an internal investigation of new allegations of inappropriate conduct.
Assistant Jim Ferry was named the interim head coach.
Chambers, who played at Philadelphia University, went 148-150 in nine seasons at State College, including bringing the 2017-18 NIT Championship to Happy Valley with a 26-13 record. Last year, the Nittany Lions were 21-10 .
Penn State also lost another Philly guy in Lamar Stevens, who signed with the Cavaliers last week.
Stevens, a 6-8 forward from Roman Catholic, was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten Conference selection who led the Nittany Lions in scoring the last two years. He finished his sparkling career as the school’s second all-time scorer with 2,207 career points, just seven points short of the scoring record when the season was shutdown.
The Nittany Lions are still loaded with Philly flavor: 6-8 sophomore forward Seth Lundy (Roman Catholic), 6-foot junior guard Sam Sessoms (The Shipley School), 6-7 freshman forward Caleb Dorsey (The Hill School), 6-5 junior guard Kyle McCloskey (Germantown Academy), 6-4 junior guard Izaiah Brockington (Archbishop Ryan), 6-9 senior forward John Harrar (Strath Haven).
Brockington (8.1 points), Lundy (5.3 points) and Harrar (4.3 points and 4.6 rebounds) all played in 31 games last year for Chambers.
Entering his fifth season and coming off a truncated 14-19 season that saw the Dragons post their most wins in his tenure, Drexel coach Zach Spiker returns four starters and 10 lettermen – and much higher expectations.
The Dragons were picked to finish third in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll while junior Camren Wynter and redshirt junior James Butler were both selected to the CAA's first team. Drexel is the lone CAA team with two preseason first team selections.
Wynter, a 6-2 point guard, averaged 15.7 points last year and was second in the CAA in assists per game and fifth in steals per game.
Butler, a 6-8 forward who started his college career at Navy, led the CAA and finished fifth in the nation with 11.7 rebounds a game. He is a double-double machine, posting 20 last year.
Wynter and Butler gives Spiker two of the best players in the city, matching Villanova’s Gillespie and Robinson-Earl for this claim.
Zach Walton, a 6-6 swing man who averaged 12.2 points last year after transferring from community college, and T.J. Bickerstaff, a sophomore forward, supply frontcourt help.
Thursday, November 26
Saint Joseph’s vs. Auburn (at Fort Myers, 4:30 p.m., FS1)
Billy Lange’s second season on Hawk Hill looks vastly different from last year for the former 76ers assistant as he welcomes back his top five scorers, including Ryan Daly. The experience certainly will be needed in the opener against Auburn, which has recorded three-straight 25-win seasons.
The schedule doesn’t get easier for the Hawks, which finished 6-26 last year, as they are slated to play Kansas, the No. 1 ranked team in the Associated Press poll at the end of last season, in Fort Myers at 2 p.m. (FS1) on Friday in the four-team Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans tourney.
But first, the Tigers.
And like Penn State, the Auburn basketball program is in turmoil after it was announced Sunday that the Tigers won't participate in the postseason after a self-imposed penalty as a result of a bribery scheme involving former assistant coach Chuck Person.
Auburn, under coach Bruce Pearl, reached the Final Four two seasons ago, but lost most of their top players from last year, including Isaac Okoro, who was the No. 5 overall pick in the NBA draft by the Cavaliers.
Daly will show up and compete against the nation’s best teams. A third team Atlantic 10 Conference pick last season, the transfer from Delaware led the league in scoring at 20.6 points. The fearless left-hander from Archbishop Carroll, also collected 6.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists as he rightfully has the ball in his hands on seemingly every possession.
Daly, a rugged 6-5 redshirt senior, averaged the most points for the Hawks since 2003-04 when he matched the incomparable Jameer Nelson’s 20.6 points. Daly, who finished 21st in the nation in scoring last season, was chosen to the A-10 preseason second team as the Hawks were selected to finish 12th in the 14-team conference.
Lange also returns Cameron Brown, (10.1 points), Taylor Funk (9.4), Myles Douglas (7.8) and Rahmir Moore (7.3) to round out the Hawks leading five returning scorers. But they'll be bolstered by the addition of several key transfers, including Dahmir Bishop (Xavier) and Greg Foster Jr. (Gonzaga), plus an intriguing three-man freshman class.
La Salle at St. John’s (2 p.m.)
The Explorers begin coach Ashley Howard’s third season at The Lapchick Tournament in New York City to play host St. John's on Thanksgiving Day. La Salle will play again in the tourney on Friday against Saint Peters (4 p.m.).
Howard showed signs of turning the corner with the Explorers at the end of last season with four wins in their final six Atlantic 10 games, including a win over Saint Joseph’s, before the shutdown.
There is reason to believe the Explorers can start this season on the same roll they finished last season.
St. John’s, however, also finished hot with three wins in its final four games, including with a 20-point win over No. 10 Creighton at Carnesecca Arena, to finish 17-15 .
Coach Mike Anderson welcomes back almost 60 percent of the Johnnies scoring from last year. Redshirt senior Rasheem Dunn is the leading returning scorer after averaging 11.9 points last year.
St. John’s also boasts McDonald’s All-American Marquette Dawson Garcia, who was named the Big East Conference preseason Freshman of the Year.
La Salle, 15-15 last year, lost former St. Joseph Prep star, Ed Croswell, a 6-8 presence inside who paced the Explorers with 10.4 points and 7.6 rebounds as a sophomore last season. Croswell transferred to Providence and left a hole in the paint in Olney.
Howard does welcome back two sophomores who made an impact as rookies last year in guard Ayinde Hikim and Christian Ray. In the unexpected season-ending game against the Hawks, the 5-11 Hikim scored a team-high 15 points while the 6-6 Ray, who played at the Haverford School, collected his first double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Most significantly, Howard also welcomes back 6-2 senior guard David Beatty. The former Imhotep star led the Explorers in scoring at 10.7 points per game. Shooting guard Jack Clark, a redshirt sophomore from Cheltenham who is coming off missing last year with a knee injury, and senior Scott Spencer should take some of the perimeter scoring pressure off of Beatty.
Saturday, November 28
Temple vs. Virginia Tech (at Mohegan Sun, 8 p.m.)
The Owls will open the season at the Air Force Reserve Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament against the Hokies (ESPNews). Temple is then slated to play Rhode Island on Sunday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, but the Rams’ status in the tourney is fluid.
The Owls were selected to finish 10th in the American Athletic conference preseason poll as second-year coach Aaron McKie returns just two starters and five lettermen from last year's team that finished 14-17 before the season was called.
The returning experience falls on seniors De’Vonde Perry (6.2 points) and 6-7 forward J.P. Moorman II (5.8 points and 5.1 rebounds) along with athletic 6-8 junior Jake Forrester, a Westtown product and transfer from Indiana who averaged 7.5 points last year.
Additional experience and productions arrives with Brendan Barry, a two-year starter at Dartmouth. The graduate transfer was awarded a medical hardship after missing the entire 2019-20 season due to injury, but won’t suit up for Temple until sometime in December.
The 6-2 guard from Fair Haven, N.J. was one of the top three-point shooters in the nation in 2018-19 (81-182, .445 percent) when he was named the Big Green team MVP with averages of 13.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. In addition to leading the Ivy League in 3-point percentage, he also led the league in minutes played (35.6) and assists-to-turnover ratio (2.20).
The Owls are expected to get production from Damian Dunn, a 6-5 redshirt freshman guard, and possibly point guard Tai Strickland, a transfer from Wisconsin who is coming off a shoulder injury, and Butler transfer Khalif Battle, who is waiting to hear from the NCAA on a transfer waiver.
Virginia Tech also has been re-enforced with transfers as second year coach Mike Young aims to improve on last season’s 16-16 record and 7-13 in the ACC.
Among the nine newcomers for the Hokies, three are graduate transfers in Justyn Mutts, a 6-7 forward who played at St. Augustine Prep in South Jersey before starting at Delaware; Cartier Diarra (Kansas State) and Cordell Pems (Iowa).
The Hokies do return three starters - all guards – including Wabissa Bede, who averaged 5.5 assists a game last year.