The Value of the Big 5 in Philly

A shot from inside The Palestra during a St. Joseph's vs. Temple game. The venue is one of the most intense in college basketball. Getty Images

Jonathan Tannenwald's writings on basketball can be found here.

Philadelphia is, among many things, a city of anachronisms.

Take a walk down Market Street and you'll see them all lined up in a row: the cobblestones in Old City, the pipe organ at Macy's, the massive and ornate City Hall.

But the best part of this great municipal time capsule is just west of the Schuylkill River on 33rd Street. A short subway ride from City Hall—on a system that still uses tokens as fares—is a place that doesn't boast when it calls itself college basketball's most historic gym.

Maybe you've heard of the Palestra, and maybe you've heard of the Big 5. Maybe you've seen a St. Joseph's-Villanova game on TV before, and maybe you'll watch when the Wildcats host the 66th waging of the Holy War on Thursday night (ESPN2, 8 p.m.).

The Big 5 isn't just about one game, though, or one school. It's about five schools—St. Joe's, 'Nova, Penn, La Salle and Temple—putting a collective interest above their own to play a full round-robin City Series every year. When the Big 5 began in 1954, formal conference affiliations didn't matter as much as they do now. The local rivalry games took center stage, and the City Series thrived for decades.

But after Villanova won the national championship in 1985, coach Rollie Massimino's program decided that it wanted to go in a different direction with its scheduling; Temple was considering a similar move (a fact that has often been lost on City Series fans itching to take out their angst on the rich Main Liners).

Six years later, a moment came that still lives in infamy for local college basketball fans. Starting with the 1991-92 season, the full round-robin stopped. Instead of playing all four Big 5 games each year, teams only played two.

Yet the spirit of the original tradition refused to die, and in 1999 it was resurrected. The full round-robin returned. While most games are played on campus sites now instead of at the Palestra, the rivalry is still a big deal.

"We are just the caretakers," said Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who spent 17 years at Penn before succeeding John Chaney on North Broad Street. "We all compete against each other, we all respect each other, and we all admire what has gone before."

In an era when the Big East has 16 teams and the Atlantic 10 has 14, the Big 5 programs don't just embrace the challenge of playing the full round robin. They demand it.

"No one understands how difficult it is because no one tries to do it the way we do it," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "When I was at Hofstra, just to play St. John's and Fordham in the same year was difficult. To get all four teams in the same year is incredible."

Maryland and Georgetown, for example, have a longstanding refusal to play each other. They have met only three times since 1980, and the last two have been at neutral sites: the 2001 NCAA Tournament in Anaheim and last month's Old Spice Classic in Orlando.

Maryland has played George Washington and American in recent years, including a surprising home loss to the Eagles last season. But the Hoyas and Colonials haven't played each other since 1982, even though their campuses are barely a mile and a half apart.

Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky was the athletic director at G.W. before taking over at his alma mater 15 years ago. He blames "institutional self-interests" for the Washington-area schools' inability to come together the way the Big 5 has.

Bilsky appreciates the Big 5's history in part because he helped create it. In 1970-71, his Penn team finished the season ranked No. 3 in the nation. Two years earlier, Bilsky hit a game-winning shot against Villanova that launched a decade of Quaker dominance in the City Series.

"It's our responsibility, regardless of the personal, selfish interests of the institutions, to keep [the Big 5] going," Bilsky said. "But to get it going today is near-impossible, and to get it going in a city like Washington has proven impossible."

Sure, there are places like Los Angeles and Raleigh where local rivalry games are played every year. But USC-UCLA and Duke-North Carolina are conference games.

"I don't really think we get enough credit (for scheduling the Big 5 every year)," Wright said. "It's a true commitment to the city and the basketball tradition of the city."

When it comes to the Big 5's future, Bilsky said that no corners will be cut.

"Getting the exact dates and games is relatively difficult, but the concept of playing is not," Bilsky said. "All the schools have said very publicly that whatever the outcome is, there's an absolute commitment to continuing the full round-robin."

On the face of it, winning the Big 5 doesn't give you too much more than bragging rights during summer pickup games. But while there's no automatic post-season bid from this unofficial conference, winning the Big 5 in January often leads to greater success in March.

At least one Big 5 team has made the NCAA Tournament every year since 1991, including last season's high-water mark of three. The last time an outright Big 5 champion didn't make the Big Dance was 1980, when a 4-0 St. Joe's squad ended up in the NIT instead. And the last time at least one three-win team didn't make it was 1977.

"We're always going to have a great strength of schedule because of the Big 5 and the Big East," Wright said. "There are teams in the Big East whose strength of schedule can hurt them because of what they do out of conference, [but] we never have to worry about that."

Unfortunately for Big 5 fans, the last few Holy War games have been blowouts. But no matter the final score on Thursday night, you can be sure that every moment will be loaded with over half a century's worth of meaning for all involved.