Big Ivy League game coming up for Penn, just not must-win | City Six Observations

Ryan Betley of Penn diving for a loose ball against Princeton on Jan. 6.

Back in the old days — before 2016-17 — Saturday’s Penn-Harvard game at the Palestra would have been your local game of the season, college hoops division. Saturday’s winner would become a strong favorite to take the Ivy League’s NCAA bid, which went to the regular-season champion for six decades.

Now, a top seed in the four-school Ivy postseason tournament looks to be on the line, and the tournament will decide which school gets the bid.

This isn’t good? Actually, I’m not a purist on this one. I like it. Forget your rooting interest. Before last season, there was only one league in America where a lot of teams were shut out from meaningful basketball games before March.

Anybody else, even if they hadn’t won a single game, could start a postseason winning streak, and if it never ended, they’d win a national title — except in the Ivy League. The idea that a full home-and-home round-robin is the way to decide a true league champ is fine and good, but the excitement of college hoops isn’t just about deciding one true league champ, especially when that league champ doesn’t tend to do too much in the NCAAs.

A four-team tournament means so many more regular-season league games count, since you’re not done until you’re eliminated from fourth place. With four games left, nobody is eliminated yet this season. That makes the Ivy better than a lot of league tournaments in which everybody gets in, which also drains excitement from the regular season. The Ivies got it right going with four.

However, I think the first-place regular-season team should get even more of a reward. I like the idea of higher-seeded schools hosting both the semis and the finals. The Patriot gets that right.

Selfishly, I also like big games at the Palestra. That’s what we’ll be getting March 10-11 regardless of what happens Saturday.

Booth returning

Whenever Phil Booth, cast now off, gets back in the coming days from a broken bone, Villanova will be at full strength. You might have noticed, the fully loaded Wildcats are pretty powerful. It’s possible they’ll be more powerful in the backcourt than before Booth went down late last month since freshman guard Collin Gillespie got back from his own broken bone and has looked confident, offering another strong bench option.

If you were asked who has the highest Ken Pomeroy offensive rating on the team and guessed Gillespie, you’d win big. Since his return, Gillespie has made 12 of 28 three-pointers. He’s also taking advantage of driving lanes, making 7 of 8 two-pointers, including 5 of 6 in Villanova’s last two games. Throw in 12 assists to 6 turnovers in the 10 games he’s been back, and you see why Gillespie’s 17 minutes per game in those 10 games have been productive.

Trivia question

Since Booth will always be remembered for his 20 points in the 2016 NCAA title game, we wondered how many Big Five players have scored that many in a national championship game.

Answer:

Howard Porter, Villanova, 1971 loss to UCLA, 25 points.

Charles Singley, La Salle, 1955 loss to San Francisco, 20 points.

Frank Blatcher, La Salle, 1954 win over Bradley, 23 points.

Charles Singley, La Salle, 1954 win over Bradley, 23 points.

That’s it, the company Booth keeps. As for 20 points off the bench, Booth claims that distinction alone.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Phil Booth taking a shot with his non-shooting hand before the St. John’s game Feb. 7.

Temple’s rebounding

If you don’t like the Owls’ not crashing the offensive boards, I’ll argue that isn’t the problem. Virginia doesn’t crash the offensive boards, preferring to get everyone back and prevent fastbreaks. This philosophy works for the best defensive team in the country.

The issue then is two-pronged. Does Temple prevent fastbreaks? Not against Houston — the Cougars still ran the ball down the Owls’ throats a number of times, finding driving lanes too easily. This wasn’t the deciding factor in the game, a 11-4 edge in fastbreak points, but was a supporting factor.

Of course, failure to prevent opponents from getting offensive rebounds is a massive issue. Houston took full control of Sunday’s game by getting as many offensive rebounds as Temple had defensive rebounds. Given that, it just didn’t matter that Houston had 17 turnovers to 10 for Temple. The Cougars still got more shots than the Owls, from the field and the foul line.

Streakiest .500-ish team in America?

Let’s go with St. Joseph’s. The last time the Hawks had either a one-game winning streak or one-game losing streak was Dec. 17. That seems crazy for a 12-14 team. Consider after that solo win over Maine, St. Joe’s has lost two, won two, lost two, won two, lost five, won three.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Shavar Newkirk, center, of St. Joseph’s going up for a shot past Kellon Taylor of Duquesne on Saturday.

A lot of that, however, is merely scheduling. The Hawks are 1-8 during those streaks away from Hawk Hill and 6-1 at home. Hawk fans note that three of the last four regular-season games will be at Hagan Arena, why St. Joe’s at 7-7 in the league still has a shot at a top-four Atlantic Ten spot and a double bye in the tournament. (The bad news for the Hawks: The tournament will be in D.C., not at Hagan Arena.)

For the Hawks, senior Shavar Newkirk has had 24 assists to just 3 turnovers over his last three games while also scoring 19.3 points a game.