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Big 5 Conference Tournament, Championship Week preview

Metro previews what will be a very busy week for local college basketball teams.
Jalen Brunson (left) and Mikal Bridges (right). (Photo: Getty Images)

For everybody in the city — except, of course, No. 2 ranked Villanova — the Conference Tournaments are a last chance to save the season. While it’s likely most of them will be unsuccessful, they’ve got nothing to lose at this point trying.

Here’s how their respective chances stack up.

Temple

It’s come down to this for Fran Dunphy’s 16-14 Temple Owls: win the American Athletic Conference Tournament this weekend in Orlando or stay home.

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A season which started off with such promise, with wins over nationally ranked Clemson, Auburn and Wisconsin and later included an upset of Wichita State, has simply gone off the rails. Temple enters the AAC tournament having lost four of its last five games.

Obi Enechionyia, Quinton Rose, Josh Brown & Co take on Tulane in their tournament opener, whom they beat on the road while the Green Wave won at the Liacouras Center. A win there would set up a rematch with Wichita Friday.

But Temple has simply been too inconsistent all season and doesn’t shoot or defend enough to expect the Owls to go on a tournament run. Chances are they’ll be left hoping for an NIT bid instead.

Saint Joseph’s

While the town’s been going gaga over the Eagles and also pumping up Villanova the Saint Joseph’s Hawks have quietly been resurrected. By virtue of a winning their last three and six of their seven last Phil Martelli’s team goes into the Atlantic 10 tournament on a roll.

That earned them fourth seed and a double bye in the 14-team A10 field, meaning they’ll open against either city rival LaSalle, UMass or George Mason on Friday. While the 15-15 Hawks are still longshots to survive the weekend, consider they just blew the doors off first place Rhode Island, 78-48 in Kingston. 

Shevar Newkirk has been on fire lately, with James Demery right behind, as the Hawks have overcome a five game losing streak that left them 9-14. Everything has to break right for the Hawks to make it through the weekend, which isn’t impossible.   But not very likely, either.


LaSalle

It’s been a down season at 20th and Olney for John Giannini’s 13-18 Explorers, who at least come in having won three of their last five.  But for the most part the Explorers have struggled with their shooting (.431) while the opposition has hit at a .453 clip, including 38 percent from 3-point range.

B.J. Johnson (20.9), who recently went over the 1000 point mark for his career and Pookie Powell (16.9) gives them a great 1-2 punch. But to expect the Explorers to beat UMass in their Wednesday play-in game, then knock off No. 5 seed George Mason Thursday just to earn a date with fellow Big Five rival Saint Joseph’s is probably asking too much.

Penn 

The task is clear for Steve Donahue’s Penn Quakers as the second Ivy League Tournament gets underway at the Palestra this weekend. However, getting it done may not be.

After knocking off Harvard at the Palestra to move into first place Feb. 24 the 22-8 Quakers needed only to win at Yale and Brown to secure top seed. They couldn’t do it, falling to the Bulldogs in the final .3 second. As a reward they draw Yale again in the first round while Harvard faces Cornell.

Presumably, though, both should advance setting up a climactic championship game between the Ivies’ 12-2 co-champs.  Penn has the better inside game with A.J. Brodeur and Max Rothschild.  The Quakers also get outside firepower from Darnell Foreman., Ryan Betley and Caleb Wood.   Harvard has a variety of options as well, led by forwards Seth Towns and Chris Lewis, along with sharpshooting Corey Johnson and point guard Christian Juzang.

However, only one will make to the NCAA’s which should make this a memorable weekend at one of college basketball’s shrines.

Villanova

Once again 27-4 Villanova goes into the Big East Tournament at the Garden this weekend as the team to beat, even though the Wildcats are “only” the No. 2 seed behind Xavier, whom they beat by a combined 40 points in their two meetings. The trick, then, might be making it to the Final, which will mean taking care of business against the Marquette-DePaul winner, followed by the Butler-Creighton winner.

Since the latter two both managed to upset the Wildcats at home, Villanova will certainly not be looking ahead.  Of greater concern to Jay Wright, who’ll become the school’s all-time winningest coach with his next win, is making sure his team moves the ball around enough to get good shots while playing the kind of disruptive defense that’s their trademark.

No matter what happens this weekend, though, the Cats figure to be at worst a No. 2 seed, likely opening up Tournament play in Pittsburgh, then head to Boston should they make it to the Sweet Sixteen — which has traditionally been their stumbling block.

So just how far can Nova go? This week on Broadway should give us a pretty good clue

 
 
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