Thursday, March 21, 2013

Philadelphia's Big Five and the NCAA Final Four

The 1985 National Champion Villanova Wildcats
Men of a certain age who grew up in Philadelphia, though they may differ by race, ethnicity, or social class, are convinced of one thing: Philly is the basketball capital of the world. After all, two of the ten greatest players ever to play the game, Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant, hail from the City of Brotherly Shove. The 1966-67 Sixers of Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, and Chet Walker lay a legitimate claim to being the greatest NBA team of all-time. More than anything else, however, it is the city's unique college basketball tradition, embodied in the legendary, unofficial amalgamation known as the "Big Five"—Penn, Temple, Villanova, St. Joseph's, and LaSalle—that cements this status. No other city—and remember, Philly is only the 4th largest TV market in the country—can boast such a rich college hoops tradition or fierce-yet-friendly set of intra-city rivalries. And, unlike the mega-universities that draw on a national crop of "student" athletes and hence currently dominate the NCAA, the Big Five has largely drawn on local and regional talent, particularly in its "golden era," the two decades between 1954 and 1974.

And what an era it was! Twice a week doubleheaders at the University of Pennsylvania's venerable Palestra on 33rd Street in West Philly, America's greatest basketball arena. Rivalries such as the "Holy Wars" fought annually by small, independent Catholic schools Villanova and St. Josephs. Indeed, my introduction to the Big 5 came in the 1964-65 season, in which the Hawks of St. Joseph's College, an institution with less than 3000 students, went 26-3 before breaking my heart by losing to Providence in the NCAA tournament's second round. Matty Goukas, Billy Oakes (my favorite), Cliff Anderson, Tom Duff, and Marty Ford—all but Anderson products of the city's Catholic League—these are names ingrained on my memory. Other names from that era likewise bring smiles to my face: Billy Melchionni, Hubie Marshall, Clarence Brookins, John Baum, Mike Hauer, Dan Kelly, Dave Wohl, Larry Cannon, Bernie Williams, Corky Calhoun, Bob Morse, Johnny Kneib, Chris Ford, Ollie Johnson, Mike Bantom, Ron Haigler, and especially the late Ken Durrett and Howard Porter.

Today, of course, things are not the same. City Series games are rarely played in the Palestra. Teams like Temple and (especially) Villanova aspire to national prominence and recruit far from home. Penn, from the Ivy League and, hence, with daunting academic standards, can't compete at the same level it did back in the 1970s. Yet, by and large, the teams of the Big Five have remained successful and not tarnished the legacies of their predecessors. This year, three Big Five teams—Villanova, Temple, and a resurgent LaSalle—were chosen to compete in the NCAA championship tournament. This is Villanova's 33rd trip to the tourney, Temple's 31st, and tiny LaSalle's 12th (and first since 1992; their victory last night over Boise State was their first NCAA tourney victory since the days of the great Lionel Simmons in 1990). None have a realistic shot at the title, but a loyal Philly guy can always hope.

As the first round of March Madness unfolds before my very eyes, I can think of nothing better than to reminisce about my teams' history in the NCAA tournament  Over the years, a Big Five school has reached the Final Four ten times. Twice they have won the National Championship and two other times they have been runner-up (including the 1971 Villanova Wildcats, who were subsequently stripped of their achievement). These are as follows:

1. The 1939 Villanova Wildcats

In the inaugural NCAA tournament, Villanova was one of eight teams invited to play for the national championship. Representing the Middle Atlantic states, the Cats defeated Brown, 42-30, before falling to Ohio State, 53-36, in the Eastern Championship.

2. The 1954 LaSalle Explorers

LaSalle, a school with only 2400 students, won Philadelphia's first NCAA tournament title in 1954, led by consensus All-America forward Tom Gola. Gola, at 6'7", was his generation's Magic Johnson, able to play all five positions on the court. For the season, Gola averaged 23.0 points and 21.7 rebounds per game. The Explorers won the title by defeating Bradley, 92-76, led by Charles Singley and sophomore guard-forward Frank Blatcher, each of whom scored 23 points in the victory. In later years, I would know Blatcher as the father of my brother Dan's teammate, Frank Blatcher, at Haverford High and coach of their summer league teams in suburban Philly during the mid-to-late '70s. In 2003 Blatcher was named to South Philadelphia High's Athletic Hall of Fame.

3. The 1955 LaSalle Explorers

The Explorers made a valiant effort to repeat their title in 1955, amassing a solid 26-5 record behind the play of UPI Player of the Year Gola. But in the championship game, despite Singley's 20 points and 16 from Gola, they fell short, losing to Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and the University of San Francisco Dons, 77-63.

4. The 1956 Temple Owls

Hal Lear scoring two of his record 48 points in his final
collegiate game, a 90-81 victory over SMU in the 1955
NCAA Tournament Third Place game.
Harry Litwack's 1956 Owls boasted a 27-4 record and perhaps the greatest backcourt in NCAA history. Senior Hal Lear, the first in a long line of basketball standouts from Philly's Overbrook High, was a deadly marksman who averaged 24 points a game. Sophomore Guy Rodgers, an electrifying 6'0" point guard out of Northeast High at 8th and Lehigh, would go on to play 12 years in the NBA, and still ranks 16th on the all-time list for assists. Their bid for the title ended with an 83-76 loss to Iowa, despite 32 from Lear and 28 from Rodgers. Lear then finished his collegiate career by erupting for a then-record 48 points in a win over SMU to capture third place in the tourney.

5. The 1958 Temple Owls

The incomparable
Guy Rodgers

Two years later Litwack's Owls duplicated their success from 1956 by defeating Dartmouth, 69-50, to win the Eastern Regional before succumbing to eventual champion Kentucky, 61-60 in the Final Four despite Rodgers's 22 points. They secured third place by thumping Kansas State, 67-57.

6. The 1961 St. Joseph's Hawks

Jimmy Lynam in his
student days
Tiny St. Joe's first rose to national prominence in 1961 under legendary coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay. The Hawks beat Wake Forest, 96-86, to win the East Regional as Bill Hoy led six players in double figures with 20 points. They subsequently were manhandled by Ohio State, 95-69, before rebounding to place third with a 127-120 victory over Utah. It all amounted to nothing, however, as St. Joseph's was stripped of its achievement by the NCAA after an investigation revealed that three key players (Jack Egan, Frank Majewski, and Vince Kempton) were revealed to have shaved points for bookies during the regular season.

7. The 1971 Villanova Wildcats

Howard Porter in one of his shining moments,
27 March 1971
In 1971 Villanova wasn't even the best team in the Big Five. That was Penn, the Ivy League champs who went 28-0 before losing to the Cats in the NCAA East Regional final. Indeed, had Ken Durrett not suffered a devastating knee injury, 'Nova might have even been the second-best team in the city. Nonetheless, they ended up with a 27-7 record, peaking at the right time with their devastating 90-47 victory over Penn, and going all the way to the title game at the Astrodome, where they fought valiantly before finally falling to perennial champ, UCLA, 68-62 (this was UCLA's 5th straight title in a stretch in which they won 9 titles in 10 years). The '71 Cats had three future NBA players in Chris Ford, Tom Inglesby, and the incomparable Howard Porter, who was so dominant in the tourney that he was awarded the Most Outstanding Player trophy despite their loss in the final game. Alas, however, the record books have erased this memory because, it was later discovered, Porter had signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Condors of the fledgling ABA.

8. The 1979 Penn Quakers

Star center Matt White, who was murdered
by his wife in his suburban Philly home in
February of 2013
1979 will always be remembered as the year of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the forever-joined-at-the-hip duo who dueled for the first of many times in the NCAA championship game. But to me 1979 will forever be remembered as the year an Ivy League school, my hometown University of Pennsylvania Quakers, made it to the Final Four. This, I can confidently say, will never happen again. But it did then, capping an era in which the Quakers were a force to be reckoned with in the city and nation as a whole. Alas, they were eliminated by Johnson's Michigan State Spartans, 101-67, before falling to DePaul, 96-93, in the consolation game.

9. The 1985 Villanova Wildcats

Easy Ed taking it to Patrick Ewing
The 1985 Villanova Wildcats are the lowest seed ever to win an NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. Even with their remarkable championship run, Rollie Massimino's squad finished with an un-championship-like 25-10 record. Of course, this was due in part to their membership in the loaded Big East Conference, who placed three teams in the Final Four. But even I could not believe the Cats could possibly beat rival Georgetown—the Hoyas of Patrick Ewing and David Wingate—in the championship game. Yet, as well as Georgetown played in the final, Villanova played better. Indeed, I would argue that their performance in that game is the greatest I have ever seen from any college team. Led by "Easy" Ed Pinckney and Dwayne McClain, the Cats shot 22-28 from the field (a record 78 percent) against the defensively dominant Hoyas, manifesting a patience unmatched in my memory. Even so, the game went down to the wire, with Villanova prevailing by a score of 66-64. This is the single greatest college basketball game I ever watched.

10. The 2009 Villanova Wildcats

Scottie Reynolds' last-second game-winning shot versus Pitt
Jay Wright has had a number of great teams on the Main Line. But none were better than this one. Led by senior forward Dante Cunningham, junior guard Scottie Reynolds, and sophomore guard Corey Fisher, the team won 25 regular season games in the tough Big East and finished with a 30-8 record. The Cats got into the Final Four by defeating league rival Pitt in the East Regional final on an acrobatic last-second shot by Reynolds. Unfortunately, guard-oriented teams like 'Nova both live and die by the outside shot, and they went stone cold in their matchup with eventual champion North Carolina, shooting just 26-79 from the field (including only 5-27 from 3-point range) in an 83-69 loss.


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  2. Thanks for this, James. I was a grad student at Penn from 1976-79 and I'll never forget the atmosphere at the Palestra nor the magic of that '78-'79 team. Remarkable that *every* Big 5 team has made the Final Four at least once - in fact, all have made it since the founding of the Big 5 in '54 (and notwithstanding the ascendance of the NCAA over the NIT since those days, meaning the NCAA Final Four is a true national final four). A great review! - Stephen Garrett

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