Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The 2012-13 season was a year of lofty expectations for the “City 6,” with two preseason conference champions leading a talent group of teams that seemed assured of send multiple teams dancing in March.
The first two months of the season had been mostly disappointing, however, with more questionable losses (Villanova to Columbia, Temple to Canisius, La Salle to Central Connecticut, etc.) than big wins. As the conference schedules kicked off, it was questionable whether or not any of Philadelphia’s Division I colleges would even get the chance to play deep into the NCAA tournament.
That all changed this week, thanks to two teams that had been largely flying under the radar. With four monumental wins, La Salle and Villanova might have just saved Philadelphia basketball this season.
The madness started on Tuesday night, when Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak in a come-from-behind win over No. 5 Louisville at the Wells Fargo Center that sent the Wildcats faithful pushing past the security guards and onto the court. Wednesday night saw another court storming, this one up at 20th and Olney after La Salle knocked off No. 9 Butler for their first win over a top-10 team in 32 years.
As if those two eye-opening wins weren’t enough, both teams doubled down on Saturday. Villanova needed a last-second Ryan Arcidiacono 3-pointer and overtime to get past No. 3 Syracuse before La Salle responded with arguably the toughest win of the week when they survived a 19-1 Virginia Commonwealth run in a 69-62 win down in Richmond.
Which win was the most impressive will certainly be debated for weeks–if not longer–but with each added victory the city’s postseason hopes grew exponentially larger and larger.
By no means is either team a lock for the NCAA tournament, though clearly both have a much greater chance after this week than they did before.
Villanova, at 13-7 overall (4-3 Big East), still has a daunting league schedule ahead of them in their quest to get to 20 wins. If they can go 7-4 over their final 11 games (five home, six away) and win a game at Madison Square Garden, it’ll be tough to ignore their profile. A road win over current No. 24 Notre Dame on Jan. 30 or No. 21 Cincinnati on Feb. 12 would certainly be nice to add to the resume, but on the plus side very few opportunities for a “bad loss” remain on the schedule.
The Wildcats are relying on a young core, and it’s clear that their youth is starting to turn into experience as the season goes on. Arcidiacono, a freshman point guard, proved with one shot that he has as much of the fabled “clutch” gene as any senior around, while sophomore Darrun Hilliard is developing into one of the better scoring guards around. Even freshman forward Daniel Ochefu, now in the starting lineup, is paying off for coach Jay Wright sooner than many expected.
La Salle has a 14-5 record (4-2 A-10), but unlike Villanova they have very few opportunities left for resume-building wins and plenty of opportunities for bad losses. Their current RPI, hovering right around 30, is certainly a plus, but the Explorers have to win at least eight of their final 10 games to stay off the bubble. Avoiding home losses to Fordham and Duquesne is an absolute must, and a win at either Temple or Saint Louis will be a nice boost to the tournament committee.
The Explorers have one of the best backcourts in the country now that Ty Garland is eligible, and the way Ramon Galloway is playing it wouldn’t be surprising to see the South Carolina transfer wind up with A-10 Player of the Year honors by the time everything’s said and done. As long as Dr. John Giannini can continue to get solid performances from forwards Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack (11 rebounds in the VCU win), they could win every game left on the schedule.
While La Salle and Villanova were busy shocking the Atlantic 10 and Big East, respectively, another Philadelphia team also had a season-saving week.
Frantz Massenat’s incredible half-court shot to beat Hofstra not only landed him in ESPN’s Top 10 plays of Wednesday (No. 5), it also gave the Dragons a spark they’d been lacking most of the season. The CAA preseason favorites for the third year in a row, Drexel had stumbled out to a 5-11 (1-3) start, losing Chris Fouch to injury early in the season and struggling to play the style of defense that coach Bruiser Flint demands.
Now, following a 68-57 win over Georgia State on Saturday–snapping a four-game win streak by the Panthers–the Dragons’ season is, while not completely healthy, at least off life support. There are still only seven teams eligible for the CAA tournament in March, so as long as Drexel continues to gain confidence throughout the next six weeks they still have as good a chance as any of the other six teams to find their way to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.
That’s not to say every team is all smiles at this point in the season.
St. Joseph’s and Temple are both working through some fairly significant problems: both teams are just 2-3 in the Atlantic 10 and while both have a top-25 win (Temple over No. 3 Syracuse, St. Joseph’s over No. 20 Notre Dame), both of those wins are getting further and further in the rearview mirror and chances to impress the Selection Committee are now few and far between.
St. Joseph’s lost to both Butler and VCU in the last two weeks, while Temple struggled in a win over 3-15 Penn before missing a golden opportunity with a road loss at Butler after the teams were tied with under eight minutes to play. Both teams also lost home games to St. Bonaventure, which had been 7-9 (0-3) before facing two teams that were picked to finish in the top four in the conference.
While the jury remains out as to whether or not St. Joseph’s and/or Temple have it in them for a late-season resurrection–the talent on both rosters suggests we haven’t heard the last of either team–their city rivals have shown that fortunes can certainly change.
Sometimes all it takes is a good week.