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 Can’t-Miss Conference Games
League rivalries are always fun. Here are several that stick out (aside from the obvious Big 5 matchup):
A.J. Brodeur (above) and Penn took Princeton to OT in last year's Ivy League semifinals. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Penn vs. Princeton -- January 5
Basketball’s third-oldest rivalry will play out at least twice more this year, and Penn has extra incentive this year to beat its Ivy League archenemy. The Tigers have won the last seven meetings between these two sides, including a clean, three-game sweep of last season which left a poor taste in the Quakers’ mouths, and it’s been a fairly lopsided affair until recently.
Princeton marred the Palestra’s 90th anniversary in February with a 64-49 trouncing of the Quakers and then returned a month later to down Penn in overtime during the inaugural game of the Ivy League Tournament. It’s safe to say Penn will be coming for blood, and with the changes in both sides’ rosters due to recruitment and graduation, there’s a good chance the Quakers break out of their slump.
After roaring past Ivy opponents last season, the Tigers graduated a sizable chunk of their core players, with almost half of the team minutes gone due to the departures of Hans Brase, Henry Caruso, Steven Cook, Pete Miller, and Spencer Weisz. Devin Cannady, Myles Stephens, and Amir Bell are still around to carry the torch for Princeton, but with the young reinforcements that have entered the Penn rotation over the last two years, the matchup is starting to tip back into the Quakers’ favor, as it has historically. Penn leads the all-time series 124 wins to 112, and when the Tigers return to the Palestra for round 237, you best bet the Quakers will be ready for a tussle. They sure as hell won’t want to start off intraleague play with a loss either after they started last season with six.
La Salle vs. VCU -- January 6
Since VCU entered the Atlantic 10 in 2012, the Rams seem to have had a direct impact on the fate of La Salle’s seasons. In 2013, La Salle proved it was for real with a win in Richmond, its second-straight victory over a ranked opponent after a heart-wrencher over Butler, and the Explorers went on to make it into that year’s Sweet Sixteen as a 13 seed. The next two meetings saw a pair of double overtime games split between the two, 2014’s contest going to VCU and 2015’s to La Salle. Each of those years, the Explorers finished within a game of .500, and in 2016, when the Rams left the Gola with an 88-70 victory, La Salle finished 9-22.
Last season was no different, as VCU snapped La Salle’s five-game win streak mid-season with a 90-52 embarrassment, a result that saw the Explorers’ campaign take a turn for the worst -- La Salle dropped nine of its final 13 games and finished at .500 once again. If John Giannini and company are going to improve upon that this season, a home win over the Rams in their third conference game is a good start.
With VCU graduating much of its 2017 NCAA Tournament group, it’ll be a doable feat for the Explorers. The Rams lost four starters and a couple of other important seniors to graduation, returning just only four players, one of whom (De’Riante Jenkins) is injured. Couple that with a new coach in Mike Rhoades, and it’s hard to know if VCU will be a tournament team this season. Justin Tillman and Jonathan Williams will take on a big load, but it’s nothing B.J. Johnson, Pookie Powell, and La Salle can’t handle.
Saint Joseph’s vs. St. Bonaventure -- January 6
While La Salle and VCU battle it out at the Gola, another quality A-10 matchup will be going down at Hagan Arena that Saturday. The Bonnies come into Philly riding six straight wins over St. Joe’s, two for each year that Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley have been around, and with Adams and Mobley leading the team as seniors, they’ll look to complete a four-year sweep.
The backcourt duo is one of the best in the conference, if not the nation. Adams and Mobley combined for almost 40 points per game last season as St. Bonaventure finished 20-12, and the former will be vying for A-10 Player of the Year once again in 2017-18 also as one of the best passers in the country. It’ll be a great test for the Hawks, and that’s not the only reason to watch. Archbishop Ryan grad Izaiah Brockington starts his tenure with the Bonnies this year and this will be a pleasant return to Philly for the exciting wing.
Temple vs. Wichita State -- February 1
The Shockers are brand new to the AAC, and they certainly won’t make it any easier of a time for Temple. Under coach Gregg Marshall, Wichita State hasn’t finished with fewer than 25 wins since the 2008-09 season, and there’s no indication things will be different this season -- Marshall returns his entire rotation from last season’s Round of 32 run. The Shockers are easily a preseason top-10 team and it’s clear to see why.
Landry Shamet is due for a breakout season after a successful sophomore campaign, and combined with Conner Frankamp, he forms one of the most efficient backcourts in college basketball. How they match up with the Owls’ strong guard play will be worth following, but that’s not all. Markis McDuffie will be healthy by February and he’ll cause some trouble for Obi Enechionyia on the inside. Being that it will be Wichita State’s first trip to the Liacouras Center, at least as a member of the AAC, this game is worth a look.
Villanova vs. Butler -- February 2
Villanova lost four games last season, and Butler was the culprit in two of them. The Bulldogs logged a pair of eight-point victories against the Wildcats behind two late rallies -- Villanova led by one with five minutes left on the road and by six with 10 minutes left at home -- and they’ll be in Nova’s way twice again this year, with Kelan Martin returning as the team’s top scorer after his 22-point performance against the ‘Cats in February. This will be the second meeting of the year between the two programs, as they’ll open up Big East play on Dec. 30 in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Butler graduated a substantial fraction of its minutes -- as well as replaced its head coach, with LaVall Jordan taking over for the departed Chris Holtmann (Ohio State) -- but with Martin, Kamar Baldwin, and Tyler Wideman still on the roster, this will be one of the top teams in the Big East for at least another season. Baldwin’s production will only go up after a 10.1-ppg freshman campaign while Martin is a proven scorer at 16 ppg and 5.8 rpg. Wideman isn’t to be taken lightly either; although his overall numbers took a slight drop from two seasons ago, his shooting efficiency improved significantly, making him one of the more effective offensive big men to see an expanded role in 2017-18.
The biggest issue for Villanova in those losses last year was rebounding. Butler won the glass battle 65-55 over the two games, not an overwhelming advantage but certainly enough to help turn the tide against a program that owned a +4 advantage on the boards for the season. The Wildcats also struggled from deep in those losses, hitting 12-of-50 (24.0 percent) from 3-point range, well below their 37 percent mark on the season.
Drexel vs. Delaware -- February 22
One of the better rivalries in the CAA is this twice-yearly battle, which always provides some excitement -- even when the two programs are battling for the basement in the CAA, like last season. Delaware leads the all-time series between the two 80-76, though they split the meetings last year, the fourth consecutive season that’s happened. This season, they’ll first meet in Newark, Del. on Jan 11 before the Blue Hens make the trip up I-95 for the rematch, which comes as the penultimate game of the regular season.
Both programs are in very similar situations. They each have a second-year head coach (Drexel’s Zach Spiker, Delaware’s Martin Ingelsby) who took over a team that had seen some success under its previous regime but were in need of a fresh start following single-win seasons in 2015-16. They each feature talented underclassmen: Delaware’s Ryan Daly won CAA Rookie of the Year last season after the 6-4 shooting guard averaged 16.0 ppg and 7.4 rpg; Drexel’s Kurk Lee Jr., a 5-9 point guard, was close behind him at 14.9 ppg, 5.0 apg and 3.9 rpg.
It’s not like either Drexel or Delaware will be expected to be league champions this season, though both should take steps forward after finishing with three and five conference wins, respectively. Charleston and Elon both return a lot of talent to the top of the CAA, while teams like Towson, Hofstra and UNC-Wilmington all figure to be in the mix as well. But with Daly and Lee leading their squads, and several impact freshmen arriving on both campuses in addition to some useful veterans, they each should be much more competitive. And that should make this rivalry even more fun.