While Villanova may have you believing otherwise, Metro has learned that college basketball and the Big Five are still alive in other parts of the city.
Sure, Jay Wright’s Wildcats may not only be national champions but haven’t lost a game among city rivals Penn, Temple, LaSalle and archrival St. Joseph’s since 2013 — a span of 18 games. But rather than be jealous about the Cats' success, the others view it as a win-win for everyone.
Not to mention a great recruiting tool.
“It’s a huge piece of what Penn basketball is about,” said Penn’s second year coach Steve Donahue, after Massachusetts native freshman A.J. Brodeur exploded for 35 points as the Quakers held off LaSalle, 77-74 Wednesday at Tom Gola Arena. “I think it’s true for the other schools in the city, but for us it’s so critical.
“It separates us from the other teams in our league to play this type of game in January. That’s something the other seven schools don’t have. And when we can bring players into that building [the famed Palestra] and tell them they’re gonna play the national champions on our home court, it’s incredible for recruiting.”
It certainly won over the 6-foot-8 Brodeur, who was a high school freshman when he first met then Boston College coach Donahue.
“Coming in I wasn’t too sure about what it [the Big Five] was,“ admitted Brodeur, who had gone 0-3 versus Villanova, Temple and St. Joe’s before finally breaking through. “But once I started to get into the whole history, see every game was once played at the Palestra and it’s been around so many years, that was one of reasons I wanted to come here. There are so many great teams that have been around so many years. That was one of the main recruiting points for me.”
Already leading the 7-9 Quakers in scoring (15.3 points per game), Donahue says the kid is just beginning the scratch the surface of his ability. Against the Explorers, Brodeur torched them early with an array of post-up moves around the basket. Then, considering he’d made only two 3-pointers all season coming in, he surprised everybody — especially LaSalle — by knocking down three from beyond the arc while scoring 13 straight points for Penn down the stretch.
“It’s fun to get a hold of a kid like this,“ said Donahue, whose 1-3-1 zone held LaSalle’s top gun, Jordan Price (10 points) in check while forcing 17 turnovers. “Conservatively, I’ve seen him play 100 games since I first met him and the stage is never too big for him.
“We understood A.J. was having a special night and called his number a lot. We’ve encouraged him to take that [3-point] shot, but for the most part people have guarded him.
“I think as his career advances you’re gonna see he’ll hit a lot more threes and take people off the dribble. There’s a lot more to his game.”
The rest of the Ivy League will find that out, as Penn heads to the road this weekend, facing Harvard and Dartmouth. Meanwhile 11-7 LaSalle goes to Hawk Hill to play St. Joseph’s in what is not only a Big Five game but an Atlantic 10 game.
While league play is their only potential ticket to the NCAA’s big dance, the Big Five will continue to matter. And the fact Villanova has left the others in its rearview mirror does nothing to take away from the Big Five’s unique charm.
“If anything I think it’s raised the level of the Big Five’s profile,” said Donahue, whose Quakers have won 12 city titles but none since 2002 (and despite having 25 Ivy crowns haven’t won one since 2007).
“Teams want it more now. And even a few weeks ago when Penn State played Michigan at the Palestra [in a Big 10 game] it was like a commercial for the Big Five," said Donahue. "They kept scanning the crowd and seeing the banners and talking about the national championships. I know this doesn’t exist in any other city. College sports in other major cities is like the fifth or sixth fiddle. In this city the Big Five means a lot and separates us from every other city. That’s why I love to coach here.”
Even the hero of the night noticed a difference. “It seems like more than just another win,” said Brodeur, who iced the game with two free throws with 2.1 seconds left after LaSalle had trimmed what had once been a 14-point lead to one on Price’s desperation trey. “It’s such a historic league and being able to come with a win on the road in my freshman year it feels great.”
If Villanova ever comes back to earth one of these years and lets one of the other guys have a chance, it might feel even better.