In most zip codes across the country, Temple's 75-65 win over No. 3 Villanova will raise eyebrows and cause some head scratching. After all, the Owls this season had been beaten by St. John's and Georgetown, two Big East teams not considered nearly as talented as the Wildcats.
In Philadelphia, the final score will be met with a knowing nod, with old and young fans alike smiling as they say, "That's the Big 5 for you." The tradition-laden city series may not offer streamers at the first made bucket or doubleheaders at the Palestra any more, but it's still good for some unexpected drama.
Since taking over at Villanova, Jay Wright has played Big 5 games with equal parts honor and trepidation. He is a child of the Big 5, a kid who grew up a quick ride from the city and spent more than a few nights on the Palestra bleachers enjoying the tradition. That part of him loves it.
But as the head coach of a team that always has more to lose than gain -- in national perception and RPI standing, at least -- these games are nothing shy of a nightmare. Weird things happen in Big 5 games -- teams that aren't supposed to have a chance play out of their minds (see Saint Joseph's against Villanova last week) and teams schooled by national battles lose their composure (see the 14-point lead the Wildcats blew against the Owls on Sunday).
So when the Wildcats brought a No. 3 ranking and a stranglehold on the Big 5 -- Villanova had won 21 of 22 in the city series prior to Sunday -- it meant exactly nothing in North Philly. Scratch that.
It meant that the Owls had even more reason to want to pull off the upset.
The irony, of course, is the Wildcats were undone by a kid who couldn't possibly understand the magnitude of the Big 5. Juan Fernandez came to Temple last December, following in the footsteps of his Argentinean hero Pepe Sanchez to enroll there. The Big 5? When I sat down with him this summer for a story, he was still trying to get his arms around the bright lights and show that is American college basketball, his studies and the English language.He told me while he's comfortable speaking in English, he still thinks in Spanish.
But the kid labeled "Pepe Sanchez with a jump shot" just played his way into Big 5 lore. He scorched Villanova for 33 points -- more than doubling his previous career-high of 16 -- and drained 7 of 10 3-pointers.
Ultimately this loss won't kill Villanova. The Wildcats will play plenty of big games between now and Selection Sunday and have more than ample opportunity to restore their place in the national pecking order.
It could, however, seriously help Temple. This was the sort of breakout game fans on North Broad Street have been waiting for from Fernandez. A dizzying playmaker, he is solid compliments in Ryan Brooks and Lavoy Allen but the Owls need his scoring. The starting backcourt of Luis Guzman and Ramone Moore haven't been point-producers so far.
More, Temple is now 8-2 with a signature win to bolster its resume and boost its confidence.
And frankly, the Owls will need it. Next up is a much-improved and undefeated Seton Hall game and around the corner is a Jan. 2 date with Kansas.