|The 1985 National Champion Villanova Wildcats|
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.
5. The 1958 Temple Owls
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|
7. The 1971 Villanova Wildcats
|Howard Porter in one of his shining moments,|
27 March 1971
8. The 1979 Penn Quakers
|Star center Matt White, who was murdered|
by his wife in his suburban Philly home in
February of 2013
9. The 1985 Villanova Wildcats
|Easy Ed taking it to Patrick Ewing|
10. The 2009 Villanova Wildcats
|Scottie Reynolds' last-second game-winning shot versus Pitt|