Dick Jerardi: Ready for some college basketball?

Questions abound as City Six teams begin practicing

Posted: October 12, 2012

SO, WHO WAS spending time in the gym this summer to get better? Which teams took best advantage of new NCAA rules that allow teams to spend more time on the court during the offseason? Which coaches self-examined what went right and wrong last season and changed what needed changing? Whose freshmen are ready to help now?

Lots of questions as college basketball practice commences Friday around the city. A season after five city teams won 20 games for the first time in the same season and the program that has been the city's national player since 2005 nearly lost 20 for the first time, what can we expect from the City Six in 2012-13.

My expectation is that we will have some good to very good teams, but no great teams, no teams that can threaten the Final Four, but perhaps a team good enough to get NCAA Tournament site preference and play early-round games at the Wells Fargo Center on the first weekend of the tournament.

Saint Joseph's, Drexel and La Salle lost just two of 15 starters from teams that won a combined 70 games. Each of them has to be considered NCAA threats, with Drexel the clear favorite to win a slimmed-down CAA (only seven teams are eligible for its tournament) and St. Joe's a slight favorite to win a daunting Atlantic 10.

Temple lost Ramone Moore, Juan Fernandez and Micheal Eric. That's a lot, but the Owls get Scootie Randall back and still have scoring machine Khalif Wyatt. No reason to think they won't be a very difficult opponent again. Penn lost Big 5 Player of the Year Zack Rosen, Tyler Bernardini and Rob Belcore. That's probably too much for a team that will be very young and mostly untested. Villanova lost Maalik Wayns and Dom Cheek from a team that lost 19 games so expectations, which have been way up since that first Sweet 16 run in 2005, will be way down. But, it's not like there are no players in the program. There are, and now the Wildcats will get a chance to make their own mark on the Main Line.

Best team in the city? You could certainly make a strong case for Drexel. Or an equally strong case for St. Joe's. Or La Salle. Or even Temple, despite the losses.

We know what we know, but there is also much we don't know. Please re-read the first paragraph. That is ultimately what this season will be about. When the unknowns become knowns we will understand more and have answers to most of the questions.

Drexel won 29 games last season, fell four points shy of an NCAA berth with a heartbreaking loss to VCU in the CAA championship game and three points short of the NIT Final Four after a two-point loss to Massachusetts. The Dragons lost a big part of their heart when big man Samme Givens ran out of eligibility, but Drexel basketball began a subtle transition last season from a pound-it-to-the-rim/defensive team that wore opponents down to a team that could still defend but could also outscore you.

The emergence of point guard Frantz Massenat and wing guard Damion Lee made the Dragons a very difficult team to stop. Combine their talent with shooter Chris Fouch and big men Daryl McCoy and Dartaye Ruffin and wing Derrick Thomas, this becomes a very difficult team to beat.

The key stats for Drexel last season were these: The Dragons scored nearly 1.1 points per possession, 46th nationally (an unheard of number for recent offensively-challenged Drexel teams) while shooting 37.8 percent from the arc (36th nationally) and holding teams to 29 percent from the arc (seventh nationally). Get anywhere close to those numbers again and Drexel is going to win a ton of games again.

St. Joe's is absolutely the most physically imposing team in town. When the Hawks were on last season, they were a force. They protected the basket at one end and all those blocked shots (244, fourth nationally behind Kentucky, Syracuse and Connecticut) led to some highlight run-outs that often resulted in spectacular lob-dunks.

Combine easy points with the one-on-one ability of point guard Tay Jones, the wonderful three-point shooting of Langston Galloway, the all-court game of Halil Kanacevic, the athleticism of Daryus Quarles, the power of Ron Roberts, the grace of C.J. Aiken and solid backup point guard Chris Wilson, you have a rotation that definitely has the highest ceiling of any team in town.

The Hawks were an efficient offensive team last season, 1.09 points per possession (52nd), but, despite all those blocks, were not a great defensive team, especially on the perimeter. They allowed .98 points per possession (106th). If they have gotten better on defense, this St. Joe's team is quite capable of making even their most optimistic fans happy. The talent is there.

Like St. Joe's, La Salle was in just about every game last season. The Explorers won 21 games and easily could have won 26 or more. The biggest difference last season was defense. La Salle really got after it, holding teams to just .95 points per possession (53rd). It was all about ball pressure, especially in the early months of the season. The Explorers could really shoot it, nailing 40.6 percent from three (fourth nationally). After starting the season 17-6, La Salle finished just 4-7. It may have been as simple as all those minutes for all those guards and the Explorers just got a bit tired down the stretch.

With the incredibly valuable point guard Tyreek Duren, wings Ramon Galloway, Sam Mills and underrated shooter D.J. Peterson surrounding improving big man Jerrell Wright, La Salle has a starting group that can match up nicely with most anybody. When Tyrone Garland becomes eligible after seven games, the wings get even better. If, in fact, big man Steve Zack can be a major contributor, the Explorers should be good enough and versatile enough to turn some of those close losses into wins and make a serious run at the NCAA.

Temple's offense was terrific last season, 1.12 points per possession (27th). I have no explanation for the 44 NCAA points against South Florida, 20 fewer points than the Owls scored in any game. Without Lavoy Allen, the defense had a major drop-off, .97 points per possession (96th).

Given all the new faces, I am not sure any of the old numbers will be relevant. Nobody is better than Fran Dunphy in reinventing the way his team plays to suit the personnel. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson is solid, but so much is new. Dalton Pepper (Pennsbury High) is home after 2 years at West Virginia. Young Will Cummings will get his chance at the point. Big man Anthony Lee will get better. And there are the freshmen. Who will be ready at the start? How good will they be eventually?

Nothing went right at Villanova last season. Coaching staff changes were all the rage this summer. The critical stat last season was long-range shooting. Those Wildcats simply could not do it, shooting 31.5 percent from the arc (281st).

There is talent here, but no expectation. And that may not be a bad thing.

JayVaughn Pinkston, James Bell, Ty Johnson, transfer Tony Chennault and Mouph Yarou all have ability. There are freshmen with possibilities. The reality, however, is that 'Nova is a guessing game at the moment.

Penn was the master of the final-possession win last season. And none of it happens without Rosen. The Quakers have two starters back in the explosive Miles Cartwright and big man Henry Brooks. Fran Dougherty and Steve Rennard should be in the mix. But if the Quakers are going to make any noise, some of the new names will have to be serious factors. One name to remember is Tony Hicks, a 6-2 guard from St. Rita's High in Chicago. He was named to the 40-player Parade All-America team. If a Penn recruit has made that team before, nobody can remember. The Quakers are a bit of a mystery at this point, but the games will start in a month and then all the questions about them and the other five will begin to get answers.

Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com

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