These opportunities don’t come around here often.
Even in a city that likes to claim such a rich history in college basketball and actually has a bit of merit to make such a claim, a No. 1 ranking for one of its schools is a rarity.
Rarer still is when a local squad sitting atop the polls takes on another from Philly.
So, please forgive any serious hoopheads out there the next few days for interrupting the latest updates on Shady’s arrest warrant, Sam’s contract status, the Phillies’ upcoming spring training and the Flyers’ looming implosion with a bit of excitement and verbiage about Wednesday night’s Big Five encounter at the Liacouras Center.
It pits host Temple, making a serious late-season push for a spot in the NCAA tournament with five straight wins and eight in its last nine games, against the nation’s top team, Villanova.
It’s just one game, you say. What’s the big deal, you wonder?
Well, consider …
By the time the two tip off this time, it will have been 28 years and 7 days since the top-ranked Owls hosted No. 20 Villanova at McGonigle Hall. Perhaps it is fitting that this go ’round pits the same two schools against one another, since, really, their rivalry has evolved into the most fair fight among all the Philly schools.
Both programs have remained regional powers, with ’Nova becoming even more of a consistent presence on the national scene.
Back then, the Owls were on the cusp of greatness that never truly materialized. The sixth edition of John Chaney outfits in Cherry & White, they were in the process of finishing an incredible five-year stretch of 140-23 for the legendary coach and about to be the first of five Elite Eight teams for him from 1988 through 2001.
Two future NBA lottery picks – Tim Perry and Mark Macon – started for Temple that night, but it was Howie Evans who stole the show, dishing out 20 assists, many of them arriving in the hands of Macon (31 points) and Mike Vreeswyk (19), and adding 15 points.
Thing is, the final score, a 98-86 win for the home team, wasn’t indicative of the evening. Indeed, in typical Big Five fashion, ’Nova made the favorite earn everything it got. The ’Cats, behind Doug West’s 27 points, actually led 65-61 with 10:42 to go and kept it close before running out of gas.
In short, the two teams put on a good show. A comparable effort this time would not surprise.
- Jack Kerwin | email@example.com
OUR NO. 1s
LA SALLE 1952 & 1954
The Explorers started atop the polls to start the 1952-53 and 1954-55 seasons, and stayed there two weeks each time, thanks in large part to the incomparable Tom Gola, who still holds the NCAA record for career rebounds with 2,201. Ironically, it was between those two campaigns that the Explorers actually won their only NCAA championship as Gola earned national player of the year honors.
The Owls lost one game in the 1987-88 regular season … by a single point at Nevada-Las Vegas. Other than that they were spotless before ultimately falling to Duke in the NCAA East Regional final, which is why they grabbed hold of the No. 1 spot on February 9 and kept it the remaining six weeks of polling. Freshman Mark Macon led the charge, averaging 20.6 ppg. en route to second-team All-America honors.
SAINT JOSEPH’S 2004
The Hawks were perfect in the regular season, running the table at 27-0 to capture the No. 1 ranking for a week before the postseason. Xavier derailed any thoughts of an unblemished campaign in the Atlantic 10 tournament, but Saint Joe’s, behind national player of the year Jameer Nelson and fellow future NBA first-round draft pick Delonte West, still reached the NCAA East Regional final before bowing out.
Talented and deep, the Wildcats have five players average double-figure scoring, led by junior Josh Hart’s 15.2 ppg. Ironically, their most ballyhooed player, freshman Jalen Brunson, is the son of former Temple standout Rick Brunson. After getting whipped by Oklahoma (78-55) and Virginia (86-75) before the Christmas, the Wildcats have won 14 of 15 in 2016, the lone loss coming in OT.
LITTLE KNOWN FACT
All the hype surrounded Temple back in 1987-88, from when the Owls squared off against Villanova as the No. 1 team in the country until they lost to Duke in the NCAA East Regional final as the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Funny thing is, few people remember that the Wildcats got just as far as the Owls did, reaching the Elite Eight before falling to Oklahoma.
KEEPING IT REAL
Temple’s Mark Macon (1991) and Tim Perry (1988), two pivotal players for the Owls the last time a No. 1 team from Philly played against another team from Philly, ended up as NBA lottery picks, but neither had the pro career Villanova’s Doug West did. A second-round selection by Minnesota, he played 12 years in the NBA, averaging a career high 19.3 ppg. while shooting 51.7 percent from the floor.