Drexel head coach Zach Spiker (above) is looking for improvement in Year Two on the Dragons' bench. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
CoBL Staff (@hooplove215)
(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 Storylines to Track
Major themes that will be running throughout each program’s season
Drexel: Dragons’ improvement in Spiker’s second year
The move from head coach Bruiser Flint to Zach Spiker last offseason was more than just a switch of coaching staffs -- it was a change of philosophies, a change of style. Nobody was expecting the Dragons to do very much in Spiker’s first season, not after they’d won a total of 15 games in the previous two years. Flint wanted to play slow. His teams ranked in the bottom 75 out of the 350-plus Division I teams in average possessions per game in each of his last six seasons. Spiker immediately turned up the pace. Last year’s Dragons ranked 68th nationally in the same category. Gone was the ball-screen, dribble-handoff offense; in was more of a run-and-gun, 3-point gunning game plan.
Ultimately, in Spiker’s first year, Drexel was exactly as good (or bad) as they were the year before, despite a small improvement in the win column from 6-25 to 9-23. Hoops stat guru Ken Pomeroy’s formulas had the Dragons 250th in Division I hoops last year, exactly where they were in 2014-15 and just five spots worse from 2015-16. The offense had marginally improved from .984 points per possession (ppp) to 1.03; the defense regressed from giving up 1.06 ppp to 1.10. But it was clearly a program in transition. Freshmen Kurk Lee Jr. and Kari Jonsson, two late pick-ups by Spiker’s staff, both performed well from the get-go despite being thrust immediately into big roles, proving they can be building blocks moving forward. But there were the expected struggles for the upperclassmen adjusting to Spiker’s style, and though the on-court product was more watchable than it had been in the recent past, the end result wasn’t much different.
Now, Spiker has had some time to shape the roster the way he wants it, bringing in two transfer guards (Troy Harper, Tramaine Isabell) and two freshmen big men (Jarvis Doles, Timmy Perry Jr.) while getting his second full offseason with the program. And while there’s still work for Spiker and his staff to bring in players who fully fit their system, it’s certainly a group that’ has more scoring and perimeter options for Spiker to work with. Like last year, when they went 6-6 before CAA play, Drexel has a non-con with some winnable games, including home games against Bowling Green, Lafayette, Rider and Quinnipiac. The key will be improving on the 3-15 league record from a year ago; with nine losses coming by single digits, they weren’t too far away. -- Josh Verlin
La Salle: Mix of experience and youth
The makeup of the Explorers’ roster will provide an interesting dynamic this season. La Salle has five players who are four or more years removed from high school. The Explorers could also have three or four freshman and sophomores see significant action.
Redshirt-junior Pookie Powell and redshirt senior B.J. Johnson will be the leaders for La Salle. They will be joined by graduate guard Amar Stukes and redshirt-senior center Tony Washington as the veteran key contributors. Those four will have to set the tone for younger players who see extended minutes.
Sophomores Isiah Deas and Saul Phiri and freshman Miles Brookins are candidates to see extended minutes. Deas and Phiri each played fewer than 10 minutes per game in 2016-17, but both should improve and play larger roles as sophomores. Brookins, a 6-9 big man from Mater Dei in California, has the size and ability to contribute as a backup to Washington.
The success of La Salle’s season will be determined by how these groups gel. If the upperclassmen set a good example and the youngsters play hard, the Explorers have a lot of talent that could do some damage in the Atlantic-10. -- Josh Verlin
A.J. Brodeur (above) collected four double-doubles as a freshman, a number sure to rise this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Penn: Underclassmen take the main stage
As Steve Donahue and his staff continue to replace the former regime’s players with those they’ve targeted, the Quakers’ roster has undergone a noticeable step up in talent. With Darien Nelson-Henry and Matt Howard both now graduated since Donahue took over, the bulk of the playmaking load has fallen onto a new generation of Penn recruits, and a bright one at that.
A.J. Brodeur and Ryan Betley took the helm as freshmen last season, finishing as two of the team’s top three scorers -- the third being Howard -- and helping turn around a tragic 0-6 start in Ivy League play. Devon Goodman also emerged as a major contributor later on, scoring 8.6 ppg over the year’s final nine games. The entire trio will command significant workloads during the coming season, and with year one in the books, they’ll already have grown into those roles.
With the new season drawing near, another class of court-ready recruits emerges for the Quakers, and this particular group of freshmen features another trio of players who could see major minutes in their first year on campus. Eddie Scott, Jarrod Simmons, and Jelani Williams will all likely find themselves somewhere in Donahue’s regular rotation. Scott can step in immediately as Howard’s replacement at the three, and Simmons will no doubt give Penn the size it needs to move Brodeur over to more of a stretch four role. We’ll see, maybe Williams even competes for big minutes off the bench in the Quakers’ congested backcourt.
It’s likely we’ll see all-underclassmen lineups on the floor frequently this season, as Betley and Brodeur already have cemented roles and Scott and Simmons have a good chance of starting games. Donahue might go with some veteran players at the start of the year, but just like last year, he could very well transition to the youth as the campaign progresses. So, if you were surprised with how big of an impact underclassmen had for Penn last season, prepare to be shocked once again, because youth will be everything for the Quakers this year. -- Zach Drapkin
Saint Joseph's: Injury recovery (and prevention)
Last year couldn’t have gone much worse for the Hawks from a medical standpoint. Pierfrancesco Oliva (knee surgery) was ruled out for the season before the season even began. James Demery sat out the first ten games with a stress fracture in his foot. Then leading scorer Shavar Newkirk tore his ACL in December, ending the rest of his junior season. Lorenzo Edwards had shoulder surgery a month later and Lamarr Kimble became the next Hawk out, breaking his foot in February. Just four players (Charlie Brown, Brendan Casper, Markell Lodge, and Nick Robinson) appeared in all 31 games and the team lost 10 of its final 11 games with the integral pieces of its regular rotation missing.
As uncontrollable as it was, the epidemic that hit Hagan Arena last season gave St. Joe’s no chance. Phil Martelli was openly frustrated by the time the Hawks’ final games rolled by and his players showed similar sentiment on and off the court.
Thanks to the wonder that is the passage of time, the Hawks have had six months to recover and are almost back at full strength. Newkirk is still rehabbing his knee but the rest are back on the court. With its core players returning and some exciting new talent arriving, St. Joe’s has the potential to be very competitive in the A-10 -- but much of that will depend on whether those core players can return to their top form and stay healthy.
If Martelli can keep his guys on the court, the Hawks have a decent shot at competing for the A-10 title. It’s hard to tell if Newkirk will be able to maintain the 20-point-per-game performances he put up last season. If Newkirk isn’t able to replicate that level of play, Brown could end up having the breakout season that was in the makes for Newkirk last season. As long as a second wave of the injury plague doesn’t sweep by this year, St. Joe’s can go far. -- Zach Drapkin
Temple: Which Obi shows up
There was a moment early last season when no one could stop Obi Enechionyia. In Temple’s first seven games, he averaged 21 points and nine rebounds, while shooting 51 percent from the field and 55 percent from three-point range. He scored in double figures in the Owls’ first 10 games, averaging 18.6 points and 7.7 rebounds during that stretch.
As defenses honed in on Enechionyia, he found it harder to score. During the team’s next 18 games from Dec. 13, 2016 to Feb. 19, 2017, Enechionyia averaged 9.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 34 percent from the field and 30 percent from behind the arc.
Enechionyia finished the season on a high note. In the Owls’ last four contests, he averaged 16.3 PPG and 4.5 PPG and shot 45 percent from the field and 43 percent from three. In total, Enechionyia finished the season averaging 13.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game on 41 percent shooting from the field and 38.5 percent from behind the arc.
While his offense was inconsistent, Enechionyia showed improvement as a rebounder and defender. His 5.8 rebounds were two more than his previous career high, and he also set career marks in steals and blocks.
As an athletic 6-10 forward with a smooth 3-point stroke, Enechionyia can turn himself into a NBA prospect if he can put together a more consistent performance in 2017-18, his senior season. The Owls lose Daniel Dingle and Mark Williams, but the return of Josh Brown from an Achilles injury and the development of junior guard Shizz Alston Jr. should take the pressure off Enechionyia. If sophomores Quinton Rose and Alani Moore II can step up and build off solid freshman seasons, Enechionyia could find himself with even more room to operate and look more like the sharpshooter that started so hot last season. If the Owls’ can’t find other scoring options, his job will be much tougher. -- Owen McCue
Villanova: Freshman impact
Despite its rise up through the ranks of the college basketball elite to approach “blue blood” territory following its second national championship in 2016 and four consecutive Big East regular-season championships, Villanova hasn’t followed the trend of recruiting any one-and-done prospects. In fact, despite bringing in numerous four-star and top-75 prospects, Jay Wright has only had to rely on a few to contribute in a major way as freshmen; Ryan Arcidiacono (2012-13) and Jalen Brunson (2015-16) are the only two true freshmen full-time starters since Corey Fisher in 2007-08. Several others, including Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo of late, have played prominent bench roles as redshirt freshmen.
This year, Villanova has four freshmen on the roster: redshirt freshman Omari Spellman (MacDuffie School, Mass.), and true freshmen Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (Neumann-Goretti, Pa.), Collin Gillespie (Archbishop Wood, Pa.) and Jermaine Samuels (Rivers School, Mass.). With only six other healthy scholarship players on the roster, it’s clear that it’s a class that’s going to have a significant impact on the court this year -- just how big is still very much up in the air.
Of the quartet, Spellman is almost guaranteed to have by far the biggest impact. A former five-star recruit, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward is an offensive talent unlike any the Wildcats have had up front in quite some time, with the ability to score from inside and out with equal effectiveness. Considering last year’s starter at the ‘5’, Darryl Reynolds, graduated, Spellman is likely to slide right into that role. Samuels, a 6-6 wing with terrific defensive potential similar to Bridges, should see backup minutes at the ‘3’ and could even play alongside Bridges to give Wright some serious length on the perimeter.
The two local products could also factor into things. Gillespie’s role will likely be determined by the health of redshirt junior guard Phil Booth, who’s dealt with knee issues that kept him out the entirety of last season; if Booth is healthy, the sharpshooting 6-3 Gillespie might snag a few reserve minutes, but his role will be much larger if Booth goes down again. Cosby-Roundtree, a 6-8 forward, will likely back up Spellman and potentially play alongside him (or sophomore Dylan Painter) for some stretches if Wright wants to go with a big lineup. -- Josh Verlin
Coming Tomorrow: Pressing Questions