TIME TO BELIEVE:
Weeks ago, as their team started to play really, every La Salle fan I talked with voiced the same concern: This can't be real, can it? It can and it is.
In fact, it has been for much of last season and most of this on. La Salle is a very good team with very good players who have learned how to win any kind of game, even as the stakes continue to get bigger. Nowhere was that more evident than Saturday against Saint Joseph's.
THE WINNING STYLE:
SJU coach Phil Martelli had to know in his heart he was probably coaching the wrong team. More than just about anybody in town, he had to know how difficult La Salle would be able to defend with his bigger, slower team. He has coached a few teams with smaller, quicker players who dribbled defenders out of position, made passes at the perfect moment and drilled open shots.
And that was La Salle in its 76-64 win over the Hawks at a jammed Palestra. Once the Explorers stopped turning it over (its centers had eight of 10 first-half turnovers), their guards were going to be able to control the game. And they did.
SJU (14-10, 5-6 Atlantic 10, 2-2 Big 5) shot 63 percent in a 40-point second half, but that was not nearly good enough. La Salle (18-6, 8-3, 3-0) shot 72.7 percent in the second half and 62.2 percent for the game in an absolute offensive tour de force.
La Salle's guards Tyreek Duren (29 points) and Ramon Galloway (16 points, 12 assists) were brilliant in their own ways.
Duren, always the coolest guy in the building, made every intelligent play. And when he was open, he hardly missed. He was 9-for-12, 5-for-6 from three and 6-for-6 from the line. When he banked in that second-half trey from the top of the key, even the La Salle non- believers, who did not understand the talent coach John Giannini and his staff have assembled, had to know the basketball gods were with them.
Galloway never forced scoring. Cut off from his spots early, he became a facilitator, penetrating to pass and finding open teammates at the rim and beyond the arc.
La Salle's ball movement was so sharp that the Explorers had 22 assists on 28 baskets. And their threes were so open that they were 10-for-16 from the arc.
The Hawks really did not play badly. They just had bad matchups. And when La Salle isolated its quick guards on bigger players away from the basket, it was not a fair fight. The basketball math was never likely to work for SJU in this matchup. La Salle won from the arc, 30-15, three points more than its actual margin.
VILLANOVA STAYS ALIVE:
The one thing Villanova's NCAA résumé lacked was a road win over a quality opponent. Check.
The Wildcats (16-10, 7-6 Big East) went to Hartford, dominated the second half and beat Connecticut (17-7, 7-5), 70-61.
There is a lot of basketball to be played and Jay Wright's team certainly has a few warts, but this is a team that plays with great heart. If the Wildcats can win the games they are supposed to win and maybe one or two more they are not, I think they will make it. And I really did not see that as a possibility when 2013 began.
Point guard Ryan Arcidiacano was up against two very good guards in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright. So what happened? Arcidiacano scored 25 points, while Napier and Boatwright combined to shoot 3-for-15, 0-for-7 from the arc, finishing with six points and 10 turnovers. The Wildcats have a gem in Ryan Arch.
'Nova crushed UConn on the boards, 41-25 (20-5 offensive). Nobody was better than senior Mouph Yarou (11 points, 16 rebounds).
ONE POINT AGAIN:
Had any team ever played five straight one-point games? It is not clear at this point so, for the moment, Temple is it after the Owls went to Massachusetts and won, 83-82.
Each of its February games has been decided by a point, three wins, two losses.
Even with those three home losses to lesser opponents, Temple (17-8, 6-5 A-10) is still right there for an NCAA bid, just in or just out.
Seniors Khalif Wyatt (17 of his 24 in the second half) and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (10 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists) were the difference in another road win over a solid opponent in UMass (16-8, 6-5).
GREAT SECOND HALF:
Penn trailed at Dartmouth by 13 points with barely 17 minutes left. The Quakers (6-18, 3-4 Ivy) then proceeded to make 16 of their last 20 shots and win going away, 67-57.
Now, Dartmouth (6-16, 2-6) is not very good and even younger than the youngest Penn team in memory, but perhaps, that run was a hint of what is to come. Sophomore Henry Brooks and freshman Jamal Lewis were terrific, missing just three of the 15 shots they attempted.
DJ'S TOP 15:
1. Miami (21-3): Beat Clemson 45-43 Sunday, its 13th straight win.
2. Florida (21-3): Outscored Auburn 45-12 from the arc, shot 57.4 percent and won 83-52, the Tigers' worst home loss since 1952.
3. Indiana (23-3): Will Sheehey (22 points) did not miss a shot (9-for-9) as the Hoosiers crushed Purdue for the second time in 18 days. This was 83-55 after 97-60 on Jan. 30.
4. Gonzaga (25-2): Does any team have an inside offensive pair like Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris? They combined for 43 points, 22 boards in 71-61 win at San Francisco.
5. Michigan State (22-4): Shot 51.1 percent and had 12 blocks in 73-64 win at Nebraska. Spartans are peaking at the right time.
6. Michigan (22-4): Got back on track with 79-71 win over Penn State after losing two straight.
7. Louisville (21-5): Has won five of last six after 59-41 victory over South Florida on Sunday.
8. Syracuse (21-4): Brandon Triche (career best 29 points, six rebounds, five assists) was the offense in ugly 76-65 win at beaten-up Seton Hall.
9. Duke (22-3): Lost at Maryland, 83-81, while getting abused near the basket. Terps shot 60 percent, crushed Devils on glass, 40-20, and won despite ridiculous 26 turnovers.
10. Kansas (21-4): Ben McLemore's 360-dunk was the highlight of the season in 73-47 win over Texas. Longhorns shot 21.8 percent. No team's defense is that good, but Texas' offense is historically bad.
11. Butler (21-5): Got Andrew Smith back from abdominal injury, but seem to have lost a bit of their January juice. Survived 68-63 at Fordham while shooting just 39.2 percent.
12. Arizona (21-4): Beat Utah, 68-64, Sunday to rebound from Thursday's 13-point loss at Colorado.
13. Kansas State (20-5): Recovered from thrashing at Kansas to make 11 threes and beat Baylor, 81-61
14. Georgetown (19-4): Now tied for Big East lead after winning seventh straight on Friday at Cincinnati, 62-55. Held Bearcats to just 31.5 percent shooting.
15. Memphis (22-3): Won at Marshall, 71-59, for its 16th straight. The Tigers may not be beating much, but they are clearly getting better.