Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
(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 Seven Can’t-Miss Non-Conference Games
We couldn’t leave any of these seven out, so we just left them all in. Doesn’t include Big 5 or City 6 matchups.
La Salle vs. Northwestern -- November 18 -- Uncasville, Conn.
The Explorers stumbled out of the gate last year, losing two of their first three contests. It’s not that they looked awful in those outings -- one loss was to Temple in overtime and the other to Texas Southern on a buzzer-beater -- but the defeats didn’t start the season off on the right foot. The Hall of Fame Tip Off is a few games into La Salle’s schedule for the coming season, but it will be the team’s first real road trip and gives them the chance to get off on a high note against a Northwestern side which made its first-ever NCAA Tournament last season.
Since Chris Collins took the helm in 2013, the Wildcats have been on the rise, putting up increased win totals in each of the last four seasons. Northwestern took down Vanderbilt in the first round of the Big Dance and gave eventual runners-up Gonzaga a run for their money in the second, and they should be dancing once again in 2018, having returned the majority of their minutes from last year. Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Vic Law are all back as double-digit scorers and so is the Wildcats’ tenacious defense, which held opponents to 44 percent shooting on two-point field goal attempts. This matchup certainly won’t be an easy one for La Salle, but a win would give the Explorers quite a wave of momentum as they move into the heart of their non-conference calendar.
Ja'Quan Newton (above) and Miami will face La Salle in Reading in November. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
La Salle vs. Miami -- November 22 -- Reading, Pa.
Miami’s a good team. A really good team. So aside from the fact that it’ll be freshman Lonnie Walker’s return to Reading, this one’s bound to be a great game. That being said, Walker is a beloved figure in his hometown and will without a doubt draw crowds back to Santander Arena for at least one more game of his. Given that Tom Gola Arena is a solid 90 minutes away, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see more dark green Walker jerseys in the crowd than Explorers gold.
The Canes come in with one of the nation’s top backcourts, led by Bruce Brown, Philly native and former Neumann-Goretti star Ja’Quan Newton, and now Walker, an explosive trio that will run the floor repeatedly against La Salle. It’s the kind of game that could really set the Explorers apart from years past; it won’t be difficult to improve on a 46-point loss to Miami at the Palestra two seasons ago, but giving the Canes a run for their money will make a statement. To do so, however, someone other than B.J. Johnson and Pookie Powell will have to step up for the Explorers.
Villanova vs. Purdue/Tennessee -- November 23 -- Atlantis, Bahamas
The Wildcats don’t exactly have the toughest slate of games to start the year -- unless you consider Columbia, Nicholls State, and Lafayette to be tough plays -- so assuming Western Kentucky doesn’t shock the ‘Cats in their Battle 4 Atlantis opener, the semifinal is where Jay Wright and company will face the first real test of their redemption campaign.
Purdue clearly poses the more exciting matchup of the two potential opponents, returning the majority of its roster from last season’s Sweet 16 run, the program’s first since 2000. Despite Caleb Swanigan’s decision to declare for the NBA Draft, the Boilermakers have plenty of potency in the paint with their 7-2 duo of Dutch freshman Matt Haarms and senior Isaac Haas, who was Purdue’s top scorer behind Swanigan last season. With 6-10 freshman Omari Spellman the tallest member of Nova’s roster, it’ll not only be a test of Spellman’s composure in his first big-time game, but also a challenging exercise for the Wildcats against a much taller team.
If Tennessee emerges from the first round to face Nova, the Vols won’t be an opponent to take lightly either. Last season, they played giant slayer against Kentucky and took down three other eventual tournament teams (ETSU, Vanderbilt, Kansas State), and that’s without mentioning that the Vols came within two points of besting national champion North Carolina. Playing against an acclimated underdog might be just what the Wildcats need to really start clicking early on.
Villanova vs. Gonzaga -- December 5 -- New York, N.Y.
The Jimmy V Classic cooked up a doozy for Villanova at Madison Square Garden this season, that’s for sure. In perhaps the flat-out best non-conference game in all of college basketball this season, the 2016 national champs will face the 2017 runners-up, both teams having lost multiple leading scorers and both teams trying to prove they’re still contenders. Whatever kinks Wright is still working out after the Battle 4 Atlantis better be straightened by the time the Zags roll in, because coach Mark Few and the Bulldogs will mean business.
If the Wildcats had it rough losing Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins this offseason, Gonzaga had it twice as bad. Few lost four starters, two of which he expected to keep for at least another year. That leaves the responsibility on Johnathan Williams and Josh Perkins to bring the Bulldogs to another Big Dance, and with a chip on their shoulder, they’ll be eager to prove their readiness on national television come December.
Positional battles are really intriguing in this one, with the 6-9 Williams potentially going up against Spellman and then Perkins challenging Jalen Brunson at the point guard spot. The matchup features two illustrious programs and enough firepower for an industrial furnace, so it should have no problem lighting up the college basketball world for at least a few hours.
Temple vs. Wisconsin -- December 6 -- Philadelphia, Pa.
Wisconsin is an interesting matchup for any Philadelphia team after the Badgers eliminated Villanova in last year’s NCAA Tournament, but that’s not the only part of their visit to the Liacouras Center we’re excited about.
Junior big man Ethan Happ was a semifinalist for player of the year last season, ranking second nationally in box plus-minus and seventh in player efficiency rating (PER), and his numbers will skyrocket this season. The Badgers graduated Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter, and Vitto Brown, their four most productive players aside from Happ, so it’s clear that in 2017-18, this will be Happ’s team, and it will be interesting to see how Temple, and particularly Obi Enechionyia, deals with that.
Happ, the Big Ten’s steals leader in each of the last two seasons, will pester Enechionyia all night on the Owls’ offensive end, but the harder battle for Temple’s 6-10 senior will be keeping Happ off the glass and away from the hoop. The Badgers’ main man is one of the top rebounders in the nation and, now that he’ll have control over a large portion of Wisconsin’s offensive touches, will be testing Enechionyia every time down the floor. So, aside from this being a tough game for Temple as a whole, the focus will be on Enechionyia and whether he’s prepared to go head-to-head with one of the best players in the country.
Penn @ Dayton -- December 9 -- Dayton, Ohio
A lot has changed for the Flyers since they won the regular season A-10 title last season. Coach Archie Miller is off to Indiana and Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith have moved on from the college scene, Cooke signing an NBA contract and Smith heading to Australia for the upcoming season. But Dayton is still a team to be taken seriously, and a visit to UD Arena from Penn will give us a good sense of whether this Quakers team is for real.
The Flyers return 6-8 forward Xeyrius Williams, who will pair up in the frontcourt with heavily anticipated redshirt-freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo, the 6-10 younger brother of Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those two should pose a good matchup for A.J. Brodeur and Jarrod Simmons, who have much to prove for a Penn team that looks to be breaking out of the program’s decade-long slump. If nothing else, a successful performance in this game, the hardest on the Quakers’ schedule not including Ivy League or Big 5 play, will look good on Penn’s resume for the season.
Saint Joseph’s vs. St. John’s -- December 20 -- Uncasville, Conn.
This Battle of the Saints hasn’t exactly been an intense rivalry over the years -- St. John’s has won 44 of the 56 encounters between these two sides since 1919 and has taken each of the last eight meetings, the most recent being a 63-61 finish at the 2013 NIT. But this year, with the Johnnies and Hawks suiting up for the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase, St. Joe’s could reverse that trend and kick off Christmas Break in a festive way.
St. John’s returns the bulk of its rotation from a subpar 2016-17 campaign, much like St. Joe’s, however, the Red Storm didn’t deal with the same injury trauma as the Hawks. Chris Mullin’s scoring trio of Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett, and Bashir Ahmed can put up some points but the team has trouble defending, which is evident from their 78.7 points allowed per game. St. Joe’s, returning four double-digit scorers, should have enough firepower to advance past the Johnnies’ frail defense in the first round of the Showcase.
Others to see
Drexel: vs. Bowling Green (Nov. 10), vs. Rider (Dec. 2)
La Salle: @ Bucknell (Dec. 22)
Penn: @ Monmouth (Nov. 25), @ Lafayette (Dec. 6)
Saint Joseph’s: vs. Princeton (Nov. 18), vs. Bucknell (Nov. 29)
Temple: @ George Washington (Dec. 3), @ Georgia (Dec. 22)
Villanova: @ UConn (Jan. 20)