St. Joe's sophomore Jack Forrest (above) has been one of the early surprises of the 2020-21 season. (Photo courtesy Rocket Mortgage Tip-Off)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The 2020-21 Division I men’s basketball season is off and running. Well, more like jogging.
As expected, COVID has already had its effect on the local programs, first shutting down Temple’s program for two weeks and then St. Joe’s on Sunday, while also causing some shuffles in the first few games for Drexel, Villanova and La Salle. Four of the City 6 got one or two games in over the first five days of the season, at least, giving us our first look at the local squads since the sports world shut down in March.
A notebook on the opening week of the season for the City 6:
Robinson-Earl can’t do it all for ‘Cats
Villanova’s first three games made a couple things clear.
First: sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a serious All-American candidate, having taken a big step forward from an already-impressive freshman campaign.
Second: if the No. 3 Wildcats (2-1) don’t have anybody to capably fill in when he’s not on the court, their ceiling is only so high.
Through three games, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward is averaging 20 points and nine rebounds, hitting 54% of his shots. He was named MVP of the 2K Empire Classic after piling up a 28-point, eight-rebound stat line in the championship game against Arizona State, making his decision to put off the NBA for a year and return to school look like a smart one.
But when Robinson-Earl was on the bench in a tighter-than-expected season-opening win over Boston College, the Wildcats’ interior defense clearly suffered; when he had a less-effective offensive game Saturday night against Virginia Tech (5-15 FG, 14 points), the Wildcats’ offense never really found a rhythm in an 81-73 OT loss.
There aren’t many options behind him who bring a true post presence to the floor. Senior forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree is out for the foreseeable future with a leg injury, leaving redshirt freshman Eric Dixon as the team’s only other available scholarship post player.
Dixon, a 6-8, 240-pound forward and consensus four-star recruit out of Abington, took last season to work on his body and skills. Though Jay Wright has praised Dixon in interviews, so far the young forward hasn’t gotten enough of a chance to show why. Against Boston College, Dixon played four minutes, all in the first half, committing two turnovers.
“I really wanted to get Eric more time, he struggled in there a little bit early,” Wright said after that game. “We’ll get him going, we need to get him going...he’ll get there.”
A night later, Dixon played a much more encouraging eight minutes against Arizona State, registering two points and a rebound but coming up with several other key tip-outs on offensive possessions and playing stout defense on the other end.
Then came another quiet night against Virginia Tech, where he registered a block in two minutes. The Wildcats could have used his rebounding presence on the floor down the stretch, when the Hokies had several second-chance opportunities to help them close a 12-point gap, force overtime, and pull off the upset.
“He has a lot of talent, he knows he has a lot of work to do, he understands it, he’s intelligent about it,” Wright said after the Arizona State win. “I know he’s going to get there, and I want to get him every chance we can because of those factors. You’ve got a guy who has talent but knows he needs to work, is patient and intelligent, you’ve got something special.
“I love that he gave us really good defense, good rebounding. He could be a good force inside offensively, [but] we don’t really need it, we need the defense and the rebounding.”
St. Joe’s much improved, but depth still emerging
The Hawks had no option but to be better than their six-win predecessor, the least-successful team in the program’s history. Several key transfers and some promising freshmen made sure that this year’s roster had undoubtedly more talent than last year, which had to result in some forward motion.
And though they’re 0-2 after the opening few days, losing to Auburn by five in overtime on Thursday and then fading down the stretch of a 22-point loss to No. 6 Kansas the day after, there’s certainly plenty of positives to take away for Hawk Hill faithful:
Redshirt junior forward Taylor Funk looks to be back to his freshman year form, averaging a team-high 17.5 ppg plus 6.5 rpg, and a team-high three blocks as well.
Columbia transfer Jack Forrest (16.5 ppg, 6-of-12 3-point shooting) and Xavier transfer Dahmir Bishop (14.0 ppg, 8-of-15 3-point shooting) have been even better than expected.
After allowing 1.10 points per possession last year, one of the worst marks in the NCAA according to hoops statistician KenPom, the Hawks have lowered that to 1.03 ppp despite the high level of competition.
However, though it’s early, production in the first two games has been top-heavy with Funk, Forrest, Bishop and do-everything senior Ryan Daly (16.0 ppg/7.0 rpg/5.0 apg). A roster that was supposed to have depth with talent has yet to see enough production from the reserves, with nobody else averaging more than 6.5 ppg.
Everybody outside that quartet has combined to shoot 13-of-52 (25.0%) overall and 4-of-23 (17.4%) from deep. Gonzaga transfer Greg Foster Jr.,, a 6-5 redshirt sophomore guard, has started both games and played 29.5 mpg, but has struggled with his shooting, going 5-for-20 (25.0%) from the floor and 1-for-8 from deep.
Two players in particular who were key contributors last year as freshmen are off to slow starts as sophomores. Cam Brown, a 6-5 wing, started 31 games last year, averaging 10.2 ppg and 4.3 rpg in just under 30 mpg; Rahmir Moore, a 6-3 guard, averaged 7.3 ppg and 2.8 rpg in 30 games (13 starts), averaging 27 mpg. Through two games, Brown is averaging 2.5 ppg and shooting 2-of-12 (16.7%), while Moore has scored two points in 29 minutes, taking only three shots, with three rebounds and zero assists.
It doesn’t help that junior wing Myles Douglas has yet to take the court due to injury, but a team that was supposed to get production from up to a dozen players needs to make sure it has it from at least its top eight.
“I’m not intensely concerned,” Lange said after the Kansas loss. “It’s just, how do we get them better, what do we need to do to produce? Is it confidence, is it spirit, is it player development, or more of it? Is it getting these guys used to playing with different people? Just searching for the answers.
“But I have no doubt in any of those guys, we want them to stay on the attack,” he added. “You know, 5-for-9 and 1-for-9 is a very fine line, just a few more makes here or there, we’ll believe in those guys and we’ll continue to ask those guys to be aggressive.”
Damn You, Comcast
The plan Saturday afternoon was to watch Drexel’s season-opener at Pitt, but it turns out that Comcast doesn’t carry the ACC Network, so this writer was forced into relying on the box score instead. The Dragons struggled defensively, allowing Pitt to shoot 62% from the floor (31-of-50), including 26-of-31 on two-pointers, which allowed the Panthers to open up a 16-point advantage early in the half that proved too big to dig out of.
Junior guard Cam Wynter, a preseason All-CAA First Team pick, had a strong game with 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting, plus five rebounds and four assists with one turnover in 34 minutes. But the other notable line in the box score was that of sophomore forward T.J. Bickerstaff, who had a career-best 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting, plus five rebounds, in 34 minutes of his own.
Bickerstaff had a similarly good opener to his year last year, going for 16 points against Temple, but once opposing coaching staffs got film on the 6-9 wing forward, they were much better prepared for what he could do on the floor; he averaged 4.8 ppg and 3.5 rpg for the season. But several people in attendance vouched for an impressive Bickerstaff performance, and Drexel head coach Zach Spiker felt that it indeed represented a big step forward for the Georgia native.
“There’s an entire year’s worth of film right now, and everyone knew what to expect and what his game presented,” Spiker said. “I had a totally different feel...I thought he was aggressive and assertive in the right ways, and did some good things, and certainly, let’s build on it.”
La Salle still struggling with identity
Year Three is a crucial one for ‘new’ head coaches, typically the season where they’ve gotten their roster how they want it, with enough time to get their program playing the right way, developing forward momentum. So there’s some real cause for concern for La Salle (0-2), which had some significant problems in their first two games of the season.
First, in an 82-65 loss to St. John’s on Thursday, the Explorers committed 26 turnovers, leading to a 33-9 Johnnies advantage in points off turnovers and 40-22 on points in the paint. All 10 players in the game committed at least one turnover, eight had multiple turnovers, and four had three-or-more, led by senior Scott Spencer’s five.
They fixed the turnover issues somewhat against Saint Peter’s the next day, giving it up only 13 times, but only managed 51 points in a 62-51 loss. The bench outscored the starters 32-19, they were beaten 41-31 on the glass, and hit fewer than 40% of their shots (20-of-51, 39.2%).
It’s hard to be too critical in the COVID era, since every program is struggling with some mixture of practice limitations, program delays, and setbacks, not to mention the mental health difficulties the pandemic presents for just about everybody, and playing in empty gyms. But there hasn’t been much encouraging about the Explorers’ first 80 minutes of the season.
First, someone needs to step up on offense. Spencer (6.0 ppg), David Beatty (5.5 ppg), and Jack Clark (3.5 ppg) all have shown the ability to be primary scorers at this level, but that hasn’t happened yet this season. But in a rotation that features 10 guys playing between 12 and 27 minutes, it might be tough for anyone to establish themselves as a must-have on-court presence. Time will tell.
- Really like the addition of Caleb Daniels to the Villanova lineup. The Tulane transfer was one of the better guards in the AAC before he transferred, and he’s fit right in on the Wildcats as a starter who doesn’t need to be a featured scorer to be effective. Through three games, he’s averaging 15.0- ppg, 3.3 rpg and 2.0 apg, shooting 53.1% overall and 40.0% (6-of-15) from deep. He’s certainly helped make up for the fact that they’re not getting enough from a trio of upperclassmen in Cole Swider (6.0 ppg/4.3 rpg), Jermaine Samuels (5.3 ppg/6.7 rpg) and Brandon Slater (1.0 ppg/1.3 rpg). The quartet of Robinson-Earl, Collin Gillespie (17.0 ppg/5.0 apg), Daniels and Justin Moore (12.3 ppg/5.3 rpg) is a good one, but they need help.
- With half the city on pause, there isn’t much to look forward to on the schedule. As of now, Tuesday has one game, Villanova vs. Hartford up in Connecticut (5:30 PM, Mohegan Sun). Wednesday has two games: La Salle at Howard (4 PM) and Drexel vs. Quinnipiac (5:30 PM, Mohegan Sun). Drexel plays Bryant on Thursday, also at Mohegan Sun, and then nobody plays until Sunday, when Villanova’s at Texas and Drexel hosts Coppin State. In total, there are nine games on the schedule between Nov. 30 and Dec. 13.
- Drexel is currently without the services of junior wing guard Coletrane Washington, leaving them with a bench of three freshmen and junior guard Matey Juric against the Panthers. Washington, a 6-4 shooting guard from Western Pa., was the team’s top 3-point shooter last year (43.9%) and they needed that on Saturday, shooting 3-of-19 from deep. Spiker didn’t give a timeline on Washington’s availability, saying “we’re hopeful to continue to evaluate his body, and hopefully we get him back soon.”
- It really shouldn’t be surprising that through two games, La Salle’s leading scorer is Coatesville grad Jhamir ‘Jig’ Brickus. The 5-11 guard always flew under the radar despite scoring more points at Coatesville than anybody else before him, including the NBA’s Rip Hamilton and previous all-time leader John Allen, a Seton Hall standout. Though Brickus is coming off the bench and playing only 17.6 mpg, he’s 9-for-11 from the field and 3-of-4 from deep for 10.5 ppg, with three steals to boot. If he keeps that up, it likely won’t be long before the freshman moves into the starting lineup.