'Cats & Hawks next season's Explorers & Owls?

Posted: March 26, 2014

IN A RECENT CHAPTER of Philadelphia's esteemed Book of Basketball, a deep and dangerous team put together a wonderful season that ended against an opponent that was just a little bit better.

The Philly team was stacked with undergraduate talent; in fact, it lost only one significant player to graduation. So the team expected - and was expected - to have another outstanding season; but that did not happen for La Salle.

Not far away, a senior-laden team made a late-season run and finally performed to its capacity. The seniors left, and, the next season, the team failed to reload and instead collapsed. It formed a viable identity by the season's end, but by then it was too late for Temple.

And, so, it will be fascinating to see what becomes of Villanova and St. Joseph's. They were, this season, virtual mirrors of what La Salle and Temple were a year ago.

La Salle won three NCAA Tournament games and went to the Sweet 16 for the first time in nearly 60 years. The Explorers returned seven of their top eight players . . . and went 15-16.

Yes, the Atlantic 10 improved, and yes, the NCAA changed the way perimeter defense was officiated.

Regardless, the Explorers could not replace the scoring or the defense or the energy that Ramon Galloway gave them.

Will the Wildcats be able to replace the scoring and the energy of James Bell?

Granted, they are slightly different from La Salle. In 2012-13, Villanova secured a surprising No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite losing three of its last five games, and had won just 19 before the Big East Tournament. 'Nova then lost to North Carolina in its first NCAA Tournament game.

Any doubt about the Wildcats' quality this season was erased early, with a 11-0 start and a 16-1 run before a pair of losses to Creighton put them at 28-3 before the Big East Tournament. A first-round exit in the Big East Tournament (La Salle last year also was bounced in its A-10 opener) left the Wildcats hoping for the best, and, indeed, they got a No. 2 seed. They cruised past Milwaukee before Connecticut shot them down in Bell's last game.

His loss will be significant . . . but probably not as significant as the loss of Galloway. Josh Hart is an enticing replacement for Bell.

Then again, it was assumed that La Salle super-sub Tyrone Garland, athletic and clutch, would easily slip into Galloway's starting spot this season; that Garland would complement Tyreek Duren, the best point guard in the city.

Instead, despite consistent and commendable effort, Duren and Garland and Co. sputtered, and hesitated, and failed.

Could the same happen at Villanova?

After all, it's no insult to any player on that roster to say that Hart was the best athlete on the team. That does not necessarily mean that Hart, a Big East all-rookie selection, will be as productive, or make the same decisions, or play with the same savvy as Bell, a first-team all-conference player.

Of course, Hart could be better.

The whole team could be better.

Sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, prematurely pressed into duty last season, had zero turnovers in 10 of Villanova's games this season. His ballhandling and penetration skills improved markedly as February turned into March, and he was never afraid to shoot.

Junior swingman Darrun Hilliard became more assertive as the season progressed, averaging nearly 11 shots per game down the stretch. Junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston rediscovered his power game, and Pinkston's relationship with selfless sophomore center Daniel Ochefu at times seemed telekinetic.

As with the Owls a year ago, the picture looks bleaker for the Hawks.

Temple lost starters Khalif Wyatt, Scootie Randall, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, late-season contributor Jake O'Brien and heady bench player T.J. DiLeo from a team that won 24 games, went 11-5 in the A-10, got a No. 9 seed and won an NCAA Tournament game.

This season, in the new American Athletic Conference, the Owls lacked the experience and the firepower to present a consistent product. They returned guard Will Cummings and versatile forward Anthony Lee and beat St. Joe's and upset No. 23 SMU, but they finished 9-22.

The Hawks could be headed down a similar rebuilding path after going 24-10 with an overtime loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The city fell in love with streetwise point forward Halil Kanacevic, leaper Ronald Roberts and cold-blooded scorer Langston Galloway, but that trio did nearly everything for the Hawks. A short bench meant that only temperamental junior forward Papa Ndao saw any credible playing time, especially as the games grew more precious. Junior point guard Chris Wilson was more an administrator than a playmaker.

However, as with Hart at Villanova, the best St. Joe's athlete, DeAndre Bembry, was a freshman. Unlike Hart, Bembre started. As the season wore on, he blossomed into the team's second-best player, behind Galloway.

Bembre teems with confidence. He is telegenic, charismatic and comfortable in the spotlight.

His lush and full afro could become iconic if he can make St. Joe's relevant again next season.

The door is wide-open.

Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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