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 Pressing Questions
How will Drexel’s backcourt fit together?
Dragons head coach Zach Spiker certainly isn’t lacking for guards. He’s got six scholarship guards on the roster, and all six are going to want to play big minutes this season.
Four of those guards were around last year. Sophomore Kurk Lee Jr., the team’s starting point guard, played more than 30 mpg and put together a terrific freshman campaign, averaging 14.9 ppg and 5.0 apg. His classmate, Kari Jonsson, played just shy of 30 mpg, averaging 10.1 ppg while hitting over 43 percent from 3-point range to lead the CAA. Senior Sammy Mojica has played more than 2,000 minutes in his three years at Drexel. He’s just 200 points from 1,000 after averaging 11.1 ppg as a junior. And finally there is redshirt senior Miles Overton, the Wake Forest transfer who averaged 9.5 ppg last season but shot just 28.4 percent from the floor.
Joining that quartet are two redshirt-junior transfers who are both itching to get back out on the court. Troy Harper, a Philadelphia native and Neumann-Goretti grad, played two seasons at Campbell before sitting out last season; Tramaine Isabelle comes to 34th and Market by way of Missouri, where he also played two and then sat out his NCAA-mandated transfer year. But ultimately, the only way for them to see the court are to take minutes away from someone else.
If handled right, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a point of conflict in the Drexel rotation. Spiker’s style is uptempo and shot-heavy, and with a pass-first point guard in Lee not needing to handle as much of the scoring load (or ball-handling duties, thanks to Isabelle), there should be enough buckets to go around. But it’s going to have to be a careful balance, certainly, and if the chemistry is off, it’s going to be yet another long year. -- Josh Verlin
La Salle head coach John Giannini (above) wants to see a lot better defensive play from his Explorers this year. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Will La Salle find defensive consistency?
When thinking about the Explorers’ last truly successful team, back in 2012-13, it’s easy to remember the high-octane offense led by Ramon Galloway and Tyrone Garland of “Southwest Philly Floater” fame, as well as Tyreek Duren, Jerrell Wright and the rest. They didn’t need to play at a breakneck pace, but it was a group that had weapons all over the court, and college hoops stat guru Ken Pomeroy had them as the 35th-most efficient offense in the country that year. But they were also no slouches on the other end of the court, ranking 87th in defensive efficiency; Galloway, Garland and Duren, plus Sam Mills, were all effective on-ball defenders, while Wright and Steve Zack manned the paint.
Over the following two years, La Salle stayed strong defensively but the offensive production couldn’t keep up, and then it switched -- though the Explorers were 69th nationally in offensive efficiency last year, they were 251st defensively. And there’s one clear factor as to why: 3-point defense. When La Salle was good, opponents shot just about 30 percent from the arc (325th nationally); last year, opponents shot just a touch shy of 40 percent (336th nationally). And so they gave up 80-plus points 13 times last season, finishing a ho-hum 15-15 and bowing out in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament (giving up 82 points to Davidson). When the Explorers made it to the Sweet 16, their opponents reached 80 just once -- in the second game of the season.
Once again, La Salle’s offense shouldn’t be an issue this year. Led by B.J. Johnson (17.6 ppg) and Pookie Powell (13.7 ppg), the Explorers have the go-to scorers necessary to pile up the points, as long as sophomores Saul Phiri and Isiah Deas can step up after deep reserve roles a year ago. But where Phiri and Deas could really make their mark and earn minutes is if they can defend at a high level -- it won’t matter in the slightest if they can score if opponents are slicing them up on the other end. -- Josh Verlin
Will Penn’s momentum continue from ‘16-17?
After the worst decade in program history -- certainly in the modern era of college basketball -- Penn basketball seems to be headed back in the right direction. The Quakers have had just one winning season since 2006-07, the last year in a stretch that saw them make 10 NCAA Tournament appearances in 15 years, mostly under the direction of Fran Dunphy. Over the last five years, it’s been especially rough; the Quakers went 50-93 (.350) overall, including a 26-44 (.371) record in the Ivy League.
Last season looked like it was going to end up yet another lost cause, when in early February the Quakers dropped to 0-6 in Ivy play. But then they ripped off wins in six of eight to nab the final spot in the Ancient Eight’s inaugural postseason tournament, and gave their archrival Princeton a run for their money in an overtime loss in the semifinals. For a team that looked dead in the water, Penn played with a surprising amount of energy down the stretch in large part to the contributions of freshmen A.J. Brodeur, Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman.
Now it’s the third year of head coach Steve Donahue’s reign, and the former Cornell head coach has his entire rotation back aside from graduated small forward Matt Howard (12.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg), the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder. Brodeur, a 6-8 post player and one of the most talented underclassmen in the league, will grow as the featured piece after averaging 13.8 ppg and 6.9 rpg a year ago. Betley (11.9 ppg) might lead the team in scoring; the Downingtown West product averaged 17.8 ppg over his team’s final eight games.
Aside from several special matchups like Big 5 contests, Penn State/Michigan State and the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs, the Palestra has been all-too-quiet over the last 10 years. This could be there year that it finally sees some life brought back into the Cathedral of College Basketball. But it’s going to take some early wins to get the spark going. -- Josh Verlin
What St. Joe's gets out of senior Shavar Newkirk (above) is one major question we have about this season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
What will St. Joe’s senior Shavar Newkirk produce?
Saint Joseph’s has the potential to be good this year. Really good. Coming off an 11-20 season that was wracked by injuries, the Hawks return their top six scorers and welcome in a pair of talented freshmen, as well as regain the services of another former starter who missed the entire last season due to injury. So hopes are high on Hawk Hill, as head coach Phil Martelli attempts to guide his program back to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time overall in his 23 years there and third time in the last five seasons.
The biggest question mark on the St. Joe’s roster is also its most important piece. Shavar Newkirk was enjoying a breakout junior season through the first 11-and-a-half games of the 2016-17 season, averaging 20.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 3.5 apg, shooting .396 from 3-point range; as a sophomore, he averaged 8.0 ppg and was just .303 on his 3-point shooting. Then, as he cruised in for an easy layup just before the halftime buzzer against George Washington on Dec. 30, his knee gave out. As his teammates departed into the locker room, Newkirk was in the corner of Hagan Arena in pain. The diagnosis was a torn ACL; he was the second of what would become four players who suffered season-ending injuries. After Newkirk went down, St. Joe’s lost all but four of its final 19 games.
When the 2017-18 season begins, it’ll have been a little more than 10 months since Newkirk’s injury, a little more than eight since the surgery. If he’s not able to play right away, that leaves junior Lamarr Kimble as the team’s only veteran and capable ball-handler, though sophomore Nick Robinson played some point last season after Kimble had injury problems of his own. And if he plays but is not 100 percent, what will his output be? Without too much depth at the guard position, what exactly Newkirk provides will be a critical piece of St. Joe’s success -- he doesn’t need to put up quite the numbers he was on pace to put up a year ago, but he can’t be what he was as a sophomore, either. -- Josh Verlin
How does Temple’s point guard situation shake out?
Shizz Alston Jr. was not supposed to get the keys to the Owls’ offense as a sophomore, but when Josh Brown went down with an Achilles injury last offseason, Alston became Temple’s floor general a year early. Alston led the Owls with 13.9 points per game and 4.1 assists per game in his first season as Temple’s lead guard.
While Brown attempted to come back last season, he was not fully healthy and played in just five games before being shut down. He was granted a medical redshirt in April to give him an extra year of eligibility this season. As a junior in 2015-16, Brown averaged 8.3 points and 4.9 assists per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio ranked 8th in Division I.
Last season, Alston rarely left the floor. He averaged 36.4 minutes per game.He played 92.9 percent of Temple’s minutes in conference play, which ranked first in The American. Brown had similar usage as a junior in 2015-16, when he played 91.6 percent of Temple’s minutes to lead The American.
Also in the mix for minutes is sophomore Alani Moore II. Moore averaged 6.5 points and 1.8 assists in 25.8 minutes per game as a freshman in 2016-17. He was Temple’s top three-point shooter at 41 percent. The 5-10 guard showed flashes of brilliance with an 18-point outing against West Virginia and a 28-point performance against Yale early in the season, but he also disappeared at times. Moore only had one double-digit performance in Temple’s last eight games and failed to score in four of those contests.
With a lack of depth in the frontcourt, coach Fran Dunphy will have to rely on his backcourt. It will be interesting to see how he finds minutes for Brown, Alston and Moore. The trio would be fun to watch if Dunphy goes small and puts all three on the floor at the same time. It could work as they are all capable long-range shooters and above average defenders.-- Owen McCue
Is Jalen Brunson ready to be the man?
After taking over the point guard duties from Ryan Arcidiacono as sophomore last season, Jalen Brunson’s scoring average jumped from 9.1 ppg to 14.7 ppg and his assists went from 2.5 apg to 4.1 apg. With plenty of other scoring options at his disposable, Brunson didn’t need to force anything. He shot 54 percent from the field.
Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds are gone and so is 43 percent of the Wildcats’ offense from a year ago. Donte DiVencenzo, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are capable of breaking out on any given night, but without Hart and Jenkins, Brunson will be the guy Villanova relies on to give consistent production night-in and night-out like Hart did last season. Hart scored in double figures in all 36 of Villanova’s games last year. Brunson accomplished the feat in all but five of the Wildcats’ games.
With defenses focusing more on him this season, Brunson may find looks harder to come by. Without the threat of Hart, he’ll likely have to attack the basket a bit more than last season. Still, with a talented roster around him, Brunson will be asked to do what he does best: make good decisions with the basketball.
After two years watching Arcidiacono and Hart run the show, Brunson has plenty of experience to draw upon as he takes over the role of “the man.” The former five-star recruit looks more than ready for the task after a strong sophomore season. -- Owen McCue
Up Next: Position Battles to Watch