To think ahead, it pays to look back. Over four decades ago, Bill Bradshaw was a young athletic director at La Salle — before he went off to be AD at DePaul, then back in town at Temple, before he was an old AD at La Salle — he can remember being in a car with Ernie Casale, Temple’s AD at that time.

Casale was a mentor. Bradshaw, now retired, said he would run issues past Casale. But this conversation was about Temple, how this new basketball league was being formed, with schools up and down the East Coast.

“We turned that down,” Casale told Bradshaw, which might shock you now when you find out the league being discussed — how when what came to be called the Big East was formed, Temple was the informal Philadelphia target (Rutgers and Holy Cross also turned down invites.)

Temple was not crazy to pass, institutionally speaking. Another league was being talked about, championed by none other than Joe Paterno.

Imagine an Eastern all-sports league featuring the likes of Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Boston College. It made a lot of sense. (Still does.) Casale and Paterno were friends, Bradshaw said. Temple was in. It just never got off the ground, as some of those schools ran with that Big East offer and fast-breaked into history.

» READ MORE: Jay Wright thinks Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is ready for the NBA

All this is solid background for an understanding of any discussion about whether Philadelphia’s schools are in the right league right now.

  1. There is some luck (good and bad) and timing (good and bad) involved.

  2. Temple’s sports future has long been tied to football.

This is the first of four stories this week, at the end of the most historically down year in the history of Big 5 men’s basketball, on its future through a number of prisms. We’ll look at factors from facilities to recruiting in this new era of transfer portals and instant eligibility, to an overall look at the Big 5 as a collective entity, what could be done to put some buzz back into local hoops beyond waiting around for Villanova (and, yes, Drexel this year) to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, you need players, but what are the factors that contribute to getting the requisite talent in place.

Where are they now?

Start with a simple question: Are these schools in the right leagues?

All this realignment ended up with a couple of leagues that were off — not way off, just by degrees. You want to compete with like-minded and similar-spending schools. You also, maybe most of all, need rivals, for your alumni, but also your players.

For Villanova, the Big East remains the right league, although maybe it took some more recent luck for that to remain true, in addition to hiring the right coach at the right time.

For Penn, let’s also stipulate, the Ivy League obviously is the right alignment. Of the six American universities with the largest overall endowments, four are Ivy schools, with Penn in that elite moneyed group, sixth place in those standings. The Quakers aren’t going anywhere.

For the rest of the locals, all bets are off. If you were starting from scratch, only worrying about hoops, would Temple be in the American Athletic Association? Zero shot. Add in football, you start to see why it is what it is, even if it doesn’t entirely make sense.

» READ MORE: Amid adversity that included positive COVID-19 tests and injuries, Villanova’s players dealt with it admirably

The AAC is a strong basketball league, a multiple-bid league, with a current AAC representative, Houston, that just reached this year’s Final Four. Wichita State, great hoops. Memphis, rich tradition. Cincinnati? UCLA was lucky to steal the Bearcats’ coach. When Temple is good enough for a bid to March Madness, one is available.

What’s the problem? Rivalries, for starters, top of the list. The Owls just don’t have one in this league filled with schools that were barely left out of Power 5 alignments. The closest road trip was to Connecticut, until UConn decided that football be damned, it was going back to the Big East.

Here’s a little mileage chart for Temple road games:

  • To East Carolina, 414 miles

  • To Memphis, 1015 miles

  • To Wichita State, 1318 miles

  • To Cincinnati, 573 miles

  • To Central Florida, 986 miles

  • To South Florida, 1041 miles

  • To Tulane, 1225 miles

  • To Tulsa, 1279 miles

  • To SMU, 1467 miles

  • To Houston, 1547 miles.

Of course, the mileages are moot since the Owls are flying their teams to these games, adding to the expense of the whole endeavor. If you’re thinking by now, get out of the AAC, get back to the good old Atlantic 10, that’s fine, except the AAC provides more television revenue. More important, if Temple is going to play football, it’s in the right league for football, that’s been proven. Maybe the only league for football.

(In a perfect world, Olympic sports would certainly be reformed into leagues based on proximity. There is zero benefit to having all these teams flying around.)

Bradshaw knows the other side of luck. He’d found some of the good stuff, had colleagues at other schools telling him that they should build a statue of him at Temple when the Owls were accepted into the Big East for all sports. It was a coup — just a short-lived one, since the league wasn’t destined to hold together. The schools without FBS football went their own way. Syracuse and Pittsburgh and Rutgers all got lucrative invites from what became known as Power 5 leagues.

After being invited back in, Temple had no other viable options when the Big East split. Even playing A-10 hoops, which served the Owls well through the John Chaney era into the Fran Dunphy era, couldn’t work if football was in the Mid-American Conference, as it was before the Big East invite.

The A-10 dilemma

But enough about the Owls, you get it. Perfect world, hoops only, Temple and the A-10 were a great marriage, full of rivalries.

» READ MORE: Dawn Staley balances her focus on basketball with her need to speak out on social justice and gender inequity

What about St. Joseph’s and La Salle? Does the A-10 still fit. You want to say yes … a hoop league for two schools with rich hoop traditions. Until you take a closer look at the numbers. Not just wins and losses, but dollars and cents.

The A-10 has averaged slightly better than two bids since 2016, but less than three, with seven at-large bids over the last five NCAA tournaments.

Not coincidentally, six of the seven at-large bids were taken by schools that routinely land in the top four of the league in expenditures on men’s basketball, with three at-large bids by VCU, two by Dayton, and one by Rhode Island. The only outlier, budget-wise, was St. Bonaventure, getting one at-large bid, in 2018, in addition to this year’s automatic bid.

Other than the year when Phil Martelli’s contract was being bought out, St. Joseph’s typically has landed just below the average in spending. In the fiscal year that ended in 2018, the Hawks were ninth in total expenses for men’s hoops, at $4.2 million. That same year, Dayton spent $7.3 million.

And La Salle? The Explorers spent $3.3 million, just beating out George Washington. The next year, La Salle got ahead of Davidson, too.

The idea that everyone is playing on an even court, it’s fantasy. In the fiscal year ending in 2018, Villanova spent more on basketball than Temple, St. Joe’s and La Salle combined. (Temple was sixth in the American, smack in the middle, but would have been third in the Atlantic 10.)

Maybe if Drexel hadn’t won the Colonial Athletic Association this year, breaking a 25-year streak away from the NCAA Tournament, the Dragons would face greater scrutiny about their league affiliation. Their spending is right up there near the top of the CAA, but that in itself is impressive since Drexel plays in the smallest facility in the CAA.

“Are we all chasing something totally out of our control and might not be achievable?” former St. Joseph’s athletic director Don DiJulia said in a 2018 interview just before he retired. What he meant was, competing for at-large spots not even against bigger spending league opponents, but against the cream of the crop of the Power 5, pointing to UCLA, Notre Dame and Indiana being either last four in or first four out that season. That’s the real competition, as the selection committee veers toward the big boys for the at-larges.

The old idea about winning 20 games gets you in the March Madness conversation isn’t true right now for mid-majors. Dayton was 21-11 on Selection Sunday in 2019. NIT. St. Bonaventure was 20-12 in 2017. NIT. Davidson was 24-9 in 2019. NIT. The seven NCAA at-large bids were by teams that on Selection Sunday were 26-8, 25-7, 25-7, 25-7, 25-7, 24-7, plus 19-7 in this shortened season.

Maybe the smart path is to be among the highest spenders in your league. Just don’t delude yourself, La Salle fans, for instance, into thinking that returning to the MAAC brings back the good old days of dominance. Those leagues have been spending on facilities. It’s pretty cutthroat out there. (More on that in a day or so.)

Add in, Philadelphia is now surrounded by programs that aren’t just showing games on the Big Ten Network, but taking in Big Ten Network revenues. Tough to keep up with the neighborhood in this pandemic era sapping resources.

» READ MORE: Delco native in charge of Indianapolis NCAA bubble laundry

Getting lucky

If it takes some luck on your side, Villanova has had some of it again. The school smartly slow-played its decision on whether to move up to big-time football. That wasn’t luck, just institutional skill. The luck came in that Fox was starting a new sports network and needed live hoops programming. Not easy when most leagues were locked up in multiyear deals with ESPN and other entities.

So if that was luck in timing, we’ll add some more. Fox originally didn’t approach the Big East since that league didn’t exist yet as it is presently constituted. The original overture, according to an A-10 source, was the A-10. Don’t jump to the wrong conclusion here. The A-10 wasn’t crazy to say no. Fox was offering far less money than it would eventually throw at the Big East, and deals with more established entities such as ESPN, NBC and CBS made more sense.

“They hadn’t aired anything yet,’' the A-10 source said. “They weren’t plugged in yet.”

Fox had little leverage and desperate need for inventory when it went for the new-look Big East, offering a much more lucrative package. Perfect marriage. Timing is everything.

A question now at hand, as Villanova has gone off to another galaxy, a present-day hoops powerhouse, lifting the Big East as opposed to the other way around. Do the other Philadelphia colleges need to go back to the drawing board, to figure out how to make their own luck?

The numbers say yes. Imagine, for instance, an Eastern Seaboard league with the likes of St. Joseph’s and La Salle and Hofstra and Fairfield, with Fordham and Manhattan back facing each other again in a Bronx rivalry, with George Washington bringing the DC market, with Holy Cross, which passed on the big time of the Big East long ago, saying, “Hmm, sounds like a league for us.” A league for schools that bleed hoops, and can point to the tradition, but maybe, without massive enrollments or endowments, can’t afford to bleed quite as much red ink.

To think ahead, it pays to look back. There’s imagination needed, beyond a clear understanding of the numbers. As schools and their constituents analyze all the facts, maybe Bradshaw asked the pertinent question.

“Does that change your commitment?” Bradshaw asked. “Or does that change your goals?”