The Big 5… Or, Nova and the other 4?

I’m 56… That’s old enough to remember when the Big 5 mattered. I miss those days. I long for their return.

The Big 5 should still be a big “thing” in Philadelphia.

Right now, it’s Villanova and the other four programs. I don’t like that… I really don’t… Temple, La Salle, St. Joseph’s and Penn need to do a lot better in every aspect.

We need the Big 5… In a city experiencing record levels of gun violence and murder, traditions like the Big 5 are important because they impact our lives in such a positive way. Properly marketed, the Big 5 could reach thousands of Philadelphia youth. Through the Big 5, youth can learn about the historical and cultural significance basketball in the City of Philadelphia.

Big 5 Streamers on the floor after 1st basket

Through Big 5 partnerships with the Philadelphia Black Basketball Hall of Fame, the proposed Philadelphia Basketball Hall of Fame, the Public League and the Catholic League the rituals, stories, beliefs, customs and routines that form the fabric of the Philadelphia basketball community can be shared and passed on. These basketball rituals, stories, are unique to Philadelphia. The interactions and rituals, both big and small create lasting memories. In today’s chaotic and rudderless society, such traditions become more important than the physical gifts that we give and receive.

Most importantly, the Big 5 is some really Philly shit.

There’s nothing like it anywhere else. Not in New York, not in Chicago, not in Los Angeles, not anywhere else. Only Philly has such a unique association of college basketball programs. Please note that the Big 5 is not a league or a conference, it’s a group of D1 programs who compete for a Philadelphia City D1 championship. From it’s founding in 1955 through the turn of the century, the Big 5 was a very big deal, especially among high school basketball players in the Greater Philadelphia region. Most area kids don’t realize or appreciate the fact that Big 5 schools represent some of most successful programs in the history of college basketball. Indeed, four of the five teams—Temple (5th), Penn (20th), Villanova (21st), and Saint Joseph’s (40th)—rank among the top 50 for all-time Division I basketball victories.

The kids don’t know any of this… The traditions and history of the Big 5 have not been effectively passed down to young hoopheads. The kids are in their phones. The Big 5 is not in their phones. The Big 5 is dead among the kids. This represents a lost opportunity for the Penn, Temple, La Salle and St. Joseph’s.

I remember Mike Brooks… I remember John Pinone… I remember Bryan Warrick… I remember Stevie Black… I remember Tony Price and Booney Salters

The streamers after the first basket… The Palestra crowd split right down the middle…

The soft pretzels… The hot dogs… The popcorn…

I remember…

Extremely sore asses from those HARD benches…

That was then… The Big 5 mattered…

Today, the Big 5 has lost it’s luster. It’s hard to make the case that the Big 5 remains relevant in the minds of young Philly ballers. For them, there is no Big 5… There’s Villanova and the other 4 programs.

I don’t like that… It’s infinitely better for everyone involved when there is more parity among the programs.

The gap between Nova and the other programs is simply too large and has been sustained for far too long.

Penn, Temple, La Salle and St. Joe’s have to step up, get better and help make the Big 5 matter again. Each has experienced a coaching change in the last 5 years or so.

So… How’s that process going? Are they making headway? Some are doing better than others.

Penn Quakers

Penn basketball appears to be well on its way… Steve Donahue’s Quakers are the only Big 5 team to defeat Villanova since 2013. Penn actually won the Big 5. Since taking over, Donahue has compiled an overall record of 84-66, while going 38-32 in the Ivy League.

It must be noted that the Quakers made the 2018 NCAA Tournament after winning the 2018 Ivy league Tournament. As a 16th seed, they played the number 1 seed Kansas. Donahue’s Philly tough Quakers jumped out to a 21–11 lead with 8:01 left in the 1st half. Things were looking good… real good.

Right then and there, Penn was Penn again. The Big 5 champs were in the national mix. They had won the Ivy and they were up 10 on Kansas deep in the first half as a 16-seed.

Good Shit Coach Donahue!

Steve Donahue, Penn Head Coach

For that brief moment, the Big 5 mattered again. It wasn’t just Nova.

Shit… for a brief second or two, I thought about Tony Price leading Penn through the NCAA Tournament to face Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the 1979 Final Four.

However, there would be no Final Four and no fairy-tale ending this time… The mighty Jayhawks went on a 22–5 run to take a 33–26 lead into half-time. The Quakers would never lead again and were outscored 43–34 in the 2nd half, resulting in a 76-60 Kansas victory. But Penn was there… they were in the mix.

Lucas Monroe, Captain 2021-22 Penn Quakers

What should be expected of the Penn program? What’s a fair ask? The Quakers should compete for Ivy League championships every year and play in the post-season about 50% of the time. It is reasonable to expect the Quakers to make the NCAA tournament at least once every 3 or 4 years on average. In years, when the Ivy League title escapes them, the Quakers should play in the NIT.

For the most part, Coach Donahue and the Quakers are holding up their end of the Big 5 bargain. They are consistently challenging for supremacy in the Ivy League. Additionally, the Quakers have recruited local players extremely well. Sophomore guard, Lucas Monroe from Abington HS has been named team captain. Another talented local Quaker is Ed Holland, Jr. from Friends Central. The University of Pennsylvania has a very good basketball program in place.

Temple Owls

Aaron McKie, Temple Head Coach

Aaron McKie actually played in the Big 5 when the Big 5 truly mattered. A member of the Philadelphia Black Basketball HOF, the former Gratz standout was one of the greatest players in Temple Basketball history. McKie is in his third season as the head coach at his alma mater. Since assuming the helm, McKie has compiled an overall record of 20-29 (.408), while going 10-22 (.312) in the AAC. Temple finished the 2019-20 campaign with a 14-17 (6-12 in AAC) record with the season coming to a sudden halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Owls struggled during the 2020-21 campaign, finishing with an 5-11 record, 4-10 in conference play.

Now in his third season as Head Coach, McKie has a roster full of kids he identified and recruited. A distinct team identity is beginning to emerge. McKie’s Owls play very hard defensively all game. The guards and wings are expected to apply constant on ball pressure. With mobile and athletic bigs in place, Temple rebounds and makes a consistent effort to protect the rim well. Jake Forrester, Sage Tolbert and Nick Jourdain are all in the 6’8” – 6’9” range. Each is a quick leaper, willing and ready to meet opponents at the rim. Offensively, there continue to be extended periods where the Owls struggle to make shots. Khalif Battle, the focal point of the Owl’s offensive attack is capable of making shots in bunches and has scored at a decent clip thus far. Hopefully, Battle will remain as productive once conference games begin. Freshman Zack Hicks has fought his way into the rotation and appears to be a dependable 6’9” marksman.

Zack Hicks, Temple Freshman

What should be expected of the Temple program? What’s a fair ask? The Owls should compete for AAC championships every year and play in the NCAA Tournament 3 out of every 4 years. The Owls should play in the NIT in any year they do not make the NCAA tournament. Temple should aspire to play in the post-season every year.

Temple is, arguably, a top 25 basketball program. Fifteen years ago, this assertion would have been taken as a given. Temple was Temple. Post-season appearances were a given. Fans and alums became restless and complained when the Owls ONLY made the NIT.

Right now… Temple ain’t that Temple… They are working their way back… Nonetheless, the McKie foundation has been laid. The men’s basketball program is Temple Tuff. The aforementioned bigs do not back down. Freshman guard Jahlil White has all the tools to be an elite wing defender. Jeremiah Williams and Tai Strickland try to get after opposing guards. Eventually, we will see what freshman guard Hysier Miller brings to the table.

For Temple alums and fans, the time has come for McKie and Temple to post a winning record and compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

La Salle Explorers

Ashley Howard is in his fourth year as Head Coach of the proud La Salle men’s basketball program. Since taking control, Howard has an overall record of 35-53 (.391), while going 20-33 (.377) in the Atlantic 10. After going 10-21, (8-10 in A10) in his first year, the Explorers improved to 15-15 in the 2019-2020 season. Last year, they regressed and went 9-16 overall and 6-11 in the A10.

Ashley Howard, La Salle Head Coach

Howard has landed to some really good recruits. Jhamir “Jig” Brickus is one of the top young point guards in the A10. Last year he became the 10th Explorer to earn A-10 All-Rookie Team status. Brickus played in all 25 games, starting 22 while leading the team in assists (85), steals (45), and minutes played (27.3 per game). Brickus came to La Salle following a legendary scholastic career at Coatesville High School where he amassed 2,531 career points.

Louisville transfer Josh Nickelberry finished his high school career with 2,904 points, making him the second-leading all-time scorer in the history of North Carolina high school basketball. He averaged 26.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game as a senior, leading his team to a 20-14 record and a runner-up position in the 1A NCISAA North Carolina state championship. Last season, Sherif Kenney was first player in La Salle history to be named A-10 Sixth Man of Year. Kenney saw action in 24 games, with 10 starts. He was second on the team in scoring (9.6 ppg), assists (41), and steals (25). A capable offensive player, he had 11 games in which he reached double figures.

Sherif Kenney, La Salle Guard

Big 10 transfers Clifton Moore (Indiana) and Mamadou Doucoure (Rutgers) hold the middle for Howard and the Explorers. Christian Ray is a reliable glue guy. The key to La Salle making a jump to the top half of the A10 will be the play of Jack Clark. A 6’9” wing, Clark possesses a sweet shooting stroke extending well beyond the college 3-point line. His length gives him an advantage and allows him to shoot over most wing defenders. He is also much quicker than most college bigs. Clark has suffered multiple serious lower body injuries, but he appears to be full strength as we start the 2021-22 campaign.

What should be expected of the La Salle program? The Explorers should expect to finish in the top 4 of the A10 every year. They should play in the NCAA tournament 1 out of every 4 or 5 years. Howard’s predecessor, John Giannini led the Explorers to one NCAA and one NIT appearance in 14 years. If Jack Clark performs at an All-A10 level, La Salle will be competitive during the A10 regulars season and a tough out in the A10 tournament. A strong showing and a post-season appearance would be timely as some in the La Salle fanbase are getting restless.

St. Joseph’s Hawks

Billy Lange is beginning his 3rd season as the head coach at St. Joseph’s. Since leaving the Philadelphia 76ers to run the Hawk program, Lange has an overall record of 13-41 (.241), while going 5-25 (.167) in the Atlantic 10. From 2004 through 2011, Lange was Head coach of Navy mens basketball. His overall record at Navy was 93-114 (.449) and 42-56 (.429) in the Patriot League. Lange’s overall Division 1 coaching record is 106-155 (.406).

Billy Lange, St. Joseph’s Head Coach

President Reed and Athletic Director Jill Bodensteiner determined the time had come to sever ties with long-time coach Phil Martelli. The ensuing breakup led to a mass exodus of players and a couple significant de-commitments. As a result, Lange walked into a battle with very few talented troops. He had to take his lumps while attempting to rebuild a roster decimated during the regime change. Working with limited tools, Lange installed an NBA influenced/derived/inspired offense that featured an inordinate amount of 3-point field goal attempts.

In Lange’s first year, 49.7% of St. Joseph’s field goal attempts were 3-pointers. In Lange’s 2nd year, he was nothing if not consistent in his approach. Again, 49.2% of Hawk field goal attempts were 3-pointers. When the Hawk players were hot, they were fun to watch and the strategy resulted in wins. Especially when Ryan Daly heated up… On Daly’s best days the Hawks were entertaining and very competitive.

However, after winning four of the last 5 games he played in a Hawk uniform, Daly is now in the NBA G-League. What approach will Lange take with this roster? How will these Hawks play? After 2 games, there’s a noticeable difference… I don’t know if it’s just an aberration or something the Hawks will sustain, but they are playing differently out of the gate. In these 2 early contests, a mere 39.5% of Hawk field goal attempts have been 3-pointers. That is way down from the past two years.

St. Joseph’s Senior Forward, Taylor Funk

Moreover, the guys that can shoot have actually been doing the shooting for St. Joseph’s. No longer engaged in sumo wrestling matches under the boards, Taylor Funk is 14-22 FG and 10-18 3FG. Cam Brown is 4-10 3FG and Jack Forrest is 2-5 3FG. Each of these guys have proven they can knock down 3-pointers at a respectable rate. Lange’s Hawks appear to be more selective beyond the arc this year.

However, the stats that jump out two games in are Ejike Obinna’s 11-20 FG, 21 rebs and 12 FTA. Obinna provides an athletic and active presence in the post for St. Joseph’s. Looks like Lange is gonna trade a few 3-point attempts for some old fashioned high percentage low post jump hooks and ally oops.

What should be expected of the St. Joseph’s program? What is a fair ask? The Hawks should play in the NCAA at least 1 out of every 4 years. The Hawks should play in the post-season 2 out of every 4 years. The Hawks should compete to be in the top 4 in the A10 every year. If Funk and Obinna remain healthy, they should be able combine with Jordan Hall to keep the Hawks in contention most nights this year.

Whether or not the Hawks can finish in the top half of the league will depend on how quickly the two rookie starters Kacper Klaczek and Erik Reynolds II can adjust to college basketball. Lange has a deep and experienced bench led by Cam Brown and Dahmir Bishop. If Lange can steer this bunch to a .500 record, all will be well on Hawk Hill.

It’s November and every college basketball program has high hopes. Penn, Temple, St. Joseph’s and La Salle expect to compete for spots near the top of the conference or win conference championships. Each has legitimate aspirations within their respective leagues.

Unfortunately, they can’t fuck with Nova. You know it… I know it… They know it… It’s not good for the Big 5. It’s not good for Philadelphia.

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