College basketball’s Feast Week features a handful of different early-season tournaments, and you don’t have to wait for the actual week of Thanksgiving to see some excellent neutral court action.
Friday night features a doubleheader in the Hall of Fame Showcase at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Temple and Rutgers face off at 5 pm ET, and they’re followed by Vermont and Iona around 7:30 pm ET.
All four programs have realistic expectations of making the NCAA tournament this season — via winning their smaller conferences or claiming at-larges in mid-to-high major leagues.
That makes these early-season non-conference resume builders all the most important.
Temple vs. Rutgers
The Owls have played three of the closest games of the entire season thus far, and Friday’s matchup with Rutgers appears to be another tight contest on paper.
Temple lost its opener in overtime at home to Wagner — a bad loss — but followed it up with a win against Big 5 rival Villanova.
If the bad loss and big victory canceled one another out, the Owls did no favors for their at-large chances with their home overtime defeat vs. Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
There’s some contention within the locker room and program right now after head coach Aaron McKie didn’t play one of the Owls’ top scorers — Khalif Battle — down the final stretch of the Vanderbilt game.
Battle scored 16 points and 21 points in the first two games, respectively, but he played just 19 minutes against the Commodores.
McKie made post-game comments that suggested he was unhappy with Battle, but the Owls’ offense really needs him to supplement the scoring production of point guard Damian Dunn.
Without Battle really in the fold, the Owls’ halfcourt offense can often get bogged down and can struggle to consistently generate open looks and score. The Owls aren’t a great jump-shooting team.
Also, based on the early-season numbers, they should be better defensively than they have been.
Teams have shot the ball well against them from beyond the arc, but the underlying defensive numbers say they haven’t been allowing that many open looks.
The Owls were a top-50 defense in both 3-point and 2-point percentage allowed last season, but find themselves grading out really poorly early in the new year. I trust the larger sample that says Temple will own a solid defense while struggling offensively.
On Friday, the Owls will face Rutgers, an elite defense that applies a lot of ball pressure and turns opponents over. The Scarlet Knights have the length to matchup with the Owls, as both teams are in the top-35 nationally in height.
Rutgers is exactly the kind of long defense with good ball pressure that can force the Owls into taking longer jump shots when they don’t project to be a great jump-shooting team. Most of the Owls’ core is back from last year when they made just 31% from beyond the 3-point arc.
You’d expect some modest improvement from Temple’s shooting this year, but it’s hard to see it shooting much higher than 33-34% as a team.
Rutgers’ offense is primarily run through spot-up shots and post-ups. The Owls have struggled massively in the pick-and-roll defense to this point, but last season, they were excellent at guarding both spot-up shooters and post-ups.
Rutgers hasn’t played an opponent near Temple’s quality or length to this point in the season, either. The Scarlet Knights’ last two games came against two of the smallest teams in the country.
Given the defensive advantages for both sides, the neutral court and the potential for fewer Battle minutes, I like the under at 132 or better.
Pick: Under 132 or better
Vermont vs. Iona
Vermont is in a really tough situational spot as it returns home from a three-game West Coast road trip that ended with zero victories. The Catamounts played three games in five days, losing at Saint Mary’s, at Cal St. Northridge in double overtime and vs. USC by two.
Now the Catamounts hit the road again — albeit a much shorter trip this time — to face Iona in the second game of the Friday doubleheader.
Iona comes in with a massive rest and travel advantage, as it hasn’t played since an away loss to Hofstra last Friday night.
Vermont’s lineup peaked in age, experience and shooting ability last season, and John Becker’s squad hasn’t quite replicated that offensive success early in this season.
The Catamounts are middle-of-the-pack nationally in experience and minutes continuity from last season. They shoot a ton of 3s offensively, and Iona’s defense is designed to concede a lot of 3-point looks.
Past Vermont teams could potentially shoot Iona out of the gym on a hot night, but that’s less likely to happen with this version of the Catamounts.
The primary scoring for Vermont comes from Dylan Penn, who isn’t much of a 3-point shooter at all, with just nine attempts in four games.
Penn is more of an interior presence and the elite shooting of Ben Shungu and Ryan Davis (both 40% or better) has left the program.
Vermont’s defense doesn’t apply much ball pressure or force a lot of turnovers, and that should help Iona get downhill and get to the rim enough to score consistently.
Vermont’s ball-screen defense grades out really poorly though four games this season, too. Meanwhile, the Gaels have been excellent offensively at generating quality looks out of ball-handler PnR screens.
Don’t count out Vermont as the season progresses, but the Catamounts are in a brutal travel spot and are giving up some athleticism advantages to the Gaels in this game.