Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright is fond of saying that every experience his young team goes through will be a new one.
That will certainly be the case on Saturday, when the vast majority of the Wildcats’ roster sets foot in the Palestra for the first time. Villanova, coincidently, will also be looking to win a Big Five game for the first time this season when it takes on Penn in the historic home of Philadelphia college basketball (8 p.m., NBC Sports Network).
“I’ve never played in the Palestra before,” sophomore shooting guard Darrun Hilliard said Thursday. “I’ve been there once before, maybe twice, with Saint Joe’s when I was being recruited. It’s my first time playing there and I’m excited to do it.”
Nine of the 13 players on Villanova’s roster are freshman or sophomores. Another, junior Nick McMahon, never saw the court during his freshman season in 2010-11, the last time the Wildcats visited the 85-year old building known as the Cathedral of College Basketball. That leaves just three Wildcats who have experienced the unique atmosphere of one of the nation’s most hallowed sporting landmarks: senior center Maurice Sutton, senior forward Mouphtaou Yarou, and junior swingman James Bell. Rest assured, the trio is anxiously awaiting its final Palestra experience.
“It’s special,” Sutton told CoBL. “The Palestra is self-explanatory. There’s so much history involved with that. I’m just going to cherish my last moment there, and I’ll go from there.”
Neither school has had much to cherish of late. Villanova (4-4, 0-2 Big Five) has lost four of its last five games since a 3-0 start. Penn, meanwhile, has dropped six of seven after a season-opening victory over UMBC. The Quakers (2-6, 0-0) have lost every which way, double-digit defeats at the hands of Delaware and Penn State sandwiching two-point heartbreakers to Drexel and Fordham.
Penn is floundering, but Wright’s squad, which has won the last nine meetings, doesn’t exactly come into Saturday’s showdown on a roll. The Wildcats are limping from a 76-61 loss to Temple on Wednesday in which they held a four-point halftime lead before falling apart after intermission. Playing in the Palestra for the first time will be a distinct challenge for Wright’s inexperienced bunch, in the middle of a stretch of three consecutive Big Five games and desperate to get on the board in the annual rivalry series.
“That will be a first for our guys, playing in the Palestra,” Wright told CoBL. “It’s always a great environment. We go down there against Penn and it’s always a big game. It’s going to be a challenge.
“Any time you come off a loss like that and you’re beat up a little bit, you have to get back on the horse. You’ve got to go play with confidence, so this is an important game for us.”
One Wildcat who could likely use an infusion of confidence is Ryan Arcidiacono. The freshman point guard leads the team in scoring at 12.4 points per game, but is averaging less than eight and shooting a paltry 23.8 percent (10-for-42) from the field over his last five games. The Neshaminy product managed just nine against the Owls, none of them in the second half. Arcidiacono insists he isn’t pressing, despite what the stats say.
“Everything can improve,” he told CoBL. “I can take better shots, but every shot I take I feel like it’s going in. They all felt good last night. I thought I got the shots I wanted; I probably could have taken a few more, but it’s not a big deal. I’ll get my shots. It doesn’t matter as long as we win.”
Wright sees it a little differently.
“I think it’s three things,” Wright said. “He’s getting the best defenders, and I do think he’s pressing a little bit with his shot selection. And then I think some others are getting good looks and not making them. He’s not shooting a good percentage, but we want him to stay aggressive and stay confident.”
Arcidiacono will need to regain his early-season form for the Wildcats to walk away from the Palestra with their first Big Five win of the season. Despite the Quakers’ less-than-impressive mark, Wright knows that records often go by the wayside when fierce rivalries get in the way, and numbers can lie. That’s certainly the case with Penn.
Take a look at the Quakers, and it’s easy to see how the untrained eye could see a two-man team and miss the forest for the trees. Junior forward Fran Dougherty, who played less than a minute in the Wildcats’ 73-65 victory a year ago, enters the teams’ 60th meeting as one of the nation’s breakout stars. After averaging 4.5 points per game a year ago, the New Britain native already has four double-doubles in the early going, posting averages of 17.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. The only other Quaker scoring more than six points per contest is junior guard Miles Cartwright (14.1 ppg), who is flourishing in the absence of prolific point guard Zack Rosen, who left University City third on the school’s all-time scoring list when he graduated last year.
“He’s a great post player,” Wright said of the 6-8, 225-pound Dougherty. “He seals in the post as well as anyone I’ve seen in a long time. And Cartwright is a really dynamic guard, especially in the open floor.”
While Dougherty and Cartwright stand out, the rest of the Quakers’ young squad toils in relative anonymity, but that doesn’t mean they don’t contribute. Every one of head coach Jerome Allen’s players sees at least 3.5 minutes of court time per game, all but one garnering at least seven. Penn also starts junior guard Steve Rennard (3.5 ppg), junior forward Henry Brooks (4.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg), and freshman point guard Jamal Lewis (4.7, 3.1), who made an impression on Wright and his staff before even coming to Philadelphia.
“I love their point guard, the freshman,” Wright said. “He played on the same high school team (Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.) as our recruit that’s coming in next year, Josh Hart, so I actually saw him. He’s a really tough kid. He and Arch is going to be a heck of a matchup. They’ve got great team quickness. Probably their team quickness will give us the biggest challenge.”
Arcidiacono’s matchup with Lewis could be short-lived. The Quakers go 12-deep, and Allen isn’t shy about shuffling his lineup based on the hot hand. In addition to their starters, four other Quakers average double figures in minutes: freshman guard Tony Hicks (5.8 ppg), sophomore guards Camryn Crocker (2.6 ppg) and Patrick Lucas-Perry (4.4 ppg), and freshman center Darien Nelson-Henry (3.1 ppg).
For all of its depth, however, Penn is undersized. Despite a subpar performance against Temple, expect Wright to go to his frontcourt early and often. Sutton and Mouphtaou Yarou (8.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg), as well as sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston (11.3, 4.5) could have a field day on the interior.
“I thought we could have done a better job against Temple that way,” Wright said. “It’s just been kind of an inconsistency of our team. We’ve got to get consistent play on the perimeter and inside each game. We have a chance to be a real balanced offensive team, but you’ve got to bring it every night to do that.”
The Wildcats believe that if they do that, the sky is the limit.
“We know that we can play with anyone; we just have to do it for a full 40 minutes,” Arcidiacono told CoBL. “…We just have to learn how to stick together for a full 40 minutes.”
“If we bring it for 40 minutes,” Hilliard added, “we can be a great team.”