Villanova guard Phil Booth — officially the most recognizable City Six player, and the only one left who played for the Wildcats in the 2016 NCAA title game — easily swatted away questions about defending the 2018 NCAA championship.
"It's a different feel, a whole new experience, kind of an exciting feel to see what we can do,'' Booth said, Tuesday, after the first official 2018-19 practice.
Booth basically could have said, Look around — how many national champs do you see here?
What's different, Booth said, is "everything. We don't have a lot of veterans, so the drills we used to do that everybody knew, we've got to teach some new things, how we do things, technique, and how we defend."
If you're going to look at the biggest questions surrounding the City Six teams, start with the defending national champs — and "how we defend."
Villanova has veteran talent with Booth, proven big-timer Eric Paschall, and big-time shooter Joe Cremo, a graduate transfer from Albany, who said he considers himself more than a shooter. (Still, not a bad label.) Coach Jay Wright talked about the progress of sophomores Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree being key barometers this season, with them needing to be older than sophomores, since there aren't any juniors back from last season's rotation.
The key to Villanova's success will be how good the defense can get. There's plenty of offensive talent, enough to ensure plenty of victories, maybe enough to take the Big East again. Can a big-time freshman class become part of a big-time defensive team? Answer that, and you'll have a reasonable guess at how strong this season could be. (There's no forgetting that Villanova's explosive, everyone-can-shoot-it offense was the key to last season, but the national title wouldn't have happened if the defense had not tightened.)
Is there a general assessment of Villanova's freshmen on the defensive side?
"Yeah, poor,'' Wright said. "It's poor."
"Yeah, average poor,'' Wright said. "It's like any high school kid coming in as a freshman, but they do pick up the concepts really quickly. That's something I like. And they're very open to learning. They don't look at it like, I'm a high school scorer — I don't have to learn this."
Few high school stars need to concentrate on defense. Five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who Wright said might be the quickest guard he's had, said he prided himself on being an on-ball defender in high school, but he knows he needs to work on the rest of the concepts.
Watch that progress all season.
For the rest of the City Six, here are some of the biggest questions:
Let's go with the obvious: Can new coach Ashley Howard make the move from Wright's top assistant and introduce his concepts and have some early success? There are a lot of hoops people in the city in Howard's corner, and if he proves he is a capable head coach, talent should show up on Olney Avenue. But, you don't know until you know.
Secondary question: Can guards Pookie Powell and Traci Carter, a Marquette transfer, mesh into one of the better guard combos in the city? They'll need to.
How many points can the Dragons fall behind Delaware and still win? No, that's not the question. We kid the Blue Hens and know the Blue Hens will have extra circles around Drexel on the schedule after last season, when the Dragons set a Division I record with a 34-point comeback.
The actual question: Can Drexel, which wants to push the pace, improve its shooting to take advantage of more possessions? Without that, more possessions would mean just more misses and more opportunities for the other guys. That's how you get to 13-20, as the Dragons were last season, when they finished 309th in the country in three-point percentage. Can guards Kurk Lee and Troy Harper get the kind of looks that will produce more makes? Will Zach Walton's 20.8 points and 41.8 three-point shooting percentage in junior college translate to Division I?
Can this transition season, the last for Fran Dunphy before Aaron McKie slides over a chair and takes over as head coach, produce an NCAA tournament appearance? That's the biggest question, but the answer will be fueled by a ton of smaller ones. For instance: Can Quinton Rose carry a team? Possible as talented as any local veteran, Rose needs to tighten his game and his decision-making. If he does that, the plays that only he can make will become an even-bigger asset alongside another veteran guard, Shizz Alston.
Secondary question: Which forward is ready to transform from promising role player to dependable offensive option? The Owls should be good enough defensively, so the answer to this one will factor into the victory total.
If you'd told me two years ago that replacing the leadership, grit, and big-play ability of Darnell Foreman would be the big question for the Quakers, I would not have assumed Penn was coming off an NCAA tournament appearance. Steve Donahue's group might be ahead of schedule, with hopes replaced by expectations. AJ Brodeur and Ryan Betley are the returning stars, and there is ample depth, but replacing Foreman and big-time shooter Caleb Wood could determine whether the Quakers repeat their 2017-18 success.
Is Charlie Brown the most talented player in the Big Five? He'll have a shot at it, and if the answer is yes, there's no reason to think the Hawks can't be right in the March Madness mix. The return of Brown and savvy-as-they-come point guard Fresh Kimble from injuries has everyone on Hawk Hill excited.
Secondary question: Can the defense be elite? It was strong enough last season, maybe surprisingly so given the injuries — 88th nationally in adjusted efficiency according to KenPom.com., fourth in the city behind Villanova (11th nationally), Penn (72nd) and Temple (78th).
Overall question: Can this be the season somebody knocks off Villanova in the Big Five? Temple and St. Joe's have to visit the Pavilion, so La Salle and Penn might have the better shot. Villanova plays all four games from Dec. 1 to 11, and the early season seems the best time to play the defending champs, so let's not say "no way" to this, as we have in recent years.