“You come at the king,” quipped The Wire‘s Omar Little, “you best not miss.” Over the course of twenty-five basketball games stretched across seven seasons, Villanova has firmly established itself atop the Big 5 throne. In that time, there have been plenty of swings at the champs, and a whole lot of whiffs.
While its city brethren have struggled to escape the shadows of their former glories, the Wildcats have been busy writing new chapters in their own history books. Jay Wright’s program has claimed two national titles in three years. Wright, who was once a Rollie Massimino lieutenant, has eclipsed the accomplishments of his former boss and cemented his place as the best coach in Villanova’s history. Finneran Pavilion, fresh off a $65 million renovation, finally matches the sartorial splendor of the head coach. And the recruiting classes haven’t been too bad, either.
If there were a season that at least one of the Big 5 teams could catch up to Villanova, it stood to reason that 2018-19 might be the one. Despite a lofty #9 ranking in the preseason AP poll, Villanova was very much a team in transition for this campaign.
Wright was tasked with replacing 4 key players from the 2017-18 championship team: Jalen Brunson, last year’s Wooden Award winner, which is given to college basketball’s best player; Mikal Bridges; Omari Spellman; and Donte Divincenzo, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. All but Brunson were selected in the first round of the June 2018 NBA Draft.
Early in the year, the Wildcats looked vulnerable. Villanova followed up a blowout loss to Michigan with a dispiriting overtime setback to the Furman Paladins. Villanova dropped both contests on its refurbished home court.
Wright’s squad hasn’t lost since.
The Wildcats claimed the AdvoCare Invitational with wins over Big 12 stalwart Oklahoma State and the 14th ranked Florida State Seminoles. They have since commenced their annual tour through the Big 5, dispatching local foes LaSalle and Temple before breezing past Holy War rival St. Joe’s.
Looming this weekend is a showdown with the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. All that stands in Villanova’s way before their trip to Allen Fieldhouse is a date with the Penn Quakers at The Palestra. Penn represents the Big 5’s last hope this season to end Villanova’s reign of dominance in city hoops.
Do the Ivy Leaguers have a chance? Three years ago, the answer would have been a resounding “no.” Now? The Quakers definitely have the talent to pull off the upset.
When Steve Donahue arrived on Penn’s campus in 2015, the once venerable basketball program was in disarray. A series of bad hiring decisions after the departure of Fran Dunphy pushed the Quakers into basketball irrelevance. Once a regular challenger for the Ivy League title, Penn fell into an eleven-season championship drought.
Donahue immediately established a vision for Penn Basketball and recruited to the identity he hoped to foster on the court. Gone were the days of attracting a difference-making player like Zack Rosen and neglecting to cultivate talent around him. Instead, Donahue discovered a dominant interior player and surrounded him with perimeter shooters who could space the floor. He found the former in junior forward A.J. Brodeur, and the latter in guards Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman, among others. The program has very much invested in the space-and-pace revolution that has overtaken the game.
Two years ago, I was curious to see if Donahue was close to leading Penn Basketball out of the wilderness. So, I went to see them take on Princeton in a game celebrating The Palestra’s 90th anniversary. It wasn’t pretty.
The Tigers shot the lights out from the three point line, employing an offense that looked more like the Golden State Warriors and less like the Princeton Offense of the Pete Carril era. There were signs of hope that a turnaround was imminent, however. By year three of the Donahue regime, Penn claimed the conference championship and punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
This fall, Penn has raced to an 8-2 record. They’ve done it without Betley, who suffered a season-ending injury in the opening game of the year. In his place, freshman Michael Wang and senior guard Antonio Woods have emerged as scoring options. Wang is a prototypical forward in today’s game; the 6’10” import from China can run the floor, has three-point range, and can play in the paint. Woods battled back from an academic suspension during his sophomore season to reclaim his place on the Penn roster; he’s established himself as Penn’s fourth-leading scorer, chipping in an average of 10 points per game.
In order to knock off Villanova, Penn will need to replicate its performance against Miami. The Quakers buried the Hurricanes with a blizzard of three pointers en route to an 89-75 victory. Penn sunk 13 of 23 shots from beyond the arc, good for a 56.5% clip. The Quakers also protected the defensive glass, pulling down 25 rebounds.
Brodeur will need to be a major factor if a potential upset is brewing. When the Wildcats are at their best, they are beating their opponents mercilessly on the boards and exploiting second chance opportunities. Brodeur can mitigate Villanova’s advantage in that area.
Villanova’s defense has been tenacious during its championship runs. If the Wildcats are successful in running Penn off the three-point line, the visitors from the Main Line will win comfortably. If not, things could get very interesting at the Palestra tonight.
Ultimately, a win for Penn tonight would add an important brick to the rebuilt foundation Donahue has laid over his four seasons at the helm.
Penn will take its shot at the kings of the Big 5. When the clock hits zero, don’t be shocked if there’s a miracle on 33rd Street.