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How to deal with Villanova’s dominance of the Big 5 | Mike Jensen

The Palestra didn't quite fill up Wednesday for Villanova's 71-56 win over Penn, speaking to the current state of Big 5 basketball.

The Palestra hosted Penn vs. Villanova on Wednesday night. The Wildcats defeated the Quakers 71-56.
The Palestra hosted Penn vs. Villanova on Wednesday night. The Wildcats defeated the Quakers 71-56.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The corners spoke.

Penn’s students showed up, and the Palestra stands on both sidelines of the old barn filled in Wednesday evening, Villanova and Penn serving up a Big 5 mid-week early season special.

The corners stayed empty.

Attendance hit 6,255, plenty to make the Palestra heat up on a cold night, but a couple of thousand shy of full, for a game that accurately added up to 71-56, little hint of an upset for the Quakers. With the win, Villanova has now won 31 of their last 32 Big 5 games.

» READ MORE: Collin Gillespie looks to score, not pass, against Penn

Not trying to tell people how to spend their money, or chastise anyone for not paying proper homage to the glories of the City Series. What this meant maybe was that local Villanova men’s hoop fans shut out of season tickets at the Finneran Pavilion did not rush in big numbers to 33rd Street as an alternative. There’s always the Butler game at the Wells Fargo Center next month, or the bigger Connecticut game at the same venue in February. New Yorkers can get to the Garden next week for the Syracuse game.

People ask a lot these days, which team is second-best in the Big 5?

My response: “Who cares?”

Not being entirely snarky, or suggesting the rest aren’t worth paying attention to — quite the opposite. But unless there’s some excitement on Selection Sunday about a second, third, or fourth Big 5 team, does it really matter who is second best?

By easily taking out La Salle on Wednesday, Temple made the strongest case yet that there is a team looking to break from the “can beat most (non-ranked) teams, but lose to almost anybody” state of the rest. Terrible fortune hit the Owls that same game, though. Top scorer Khalif Battle fracture a bone in his foot and is out for the season, needing surgery. All bets are off on how that impacts Temple.

» READ MORE: Temple dominates La Salle

I thought going into the season, second-best might be Penn, and it might still be … or it could be St. Joseph’s. The Hawks will get their Villanova test Saturday afternoon on the Main Line.

Second best? Maybe Drexel. (Just to throw another dagger at Big 5 purists.) The Dragons, trying to make it two straight trips to March Madness, already nipped St. Joe’s on Hawk Hill. Maybe the Dec. 18 Drexel-Temple game is for second-best. To this point, La Salle is the only school that has dropped from contention for that title.

Let’s say this again … Villanova’s ultra-dominance of the Big 5 does not mean “Get rid of the Big 5.” Of course, Villanova is dominant. They’ve been pretty good in the Big East lately, too. And pretty good in March. You think if the state of Washington had a yearly competition, Gonzaga wouldn’t have dominated lately?

“Physical and mental toughness is kind of what they have,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said after his team lost to the Wildcats Wednesday. “I was actually very pleased with long stretches of how we competed. But it takes every ounce of us to compete with that kind of physicality and toughness. And then sometimes the skills and execution was behind. … They have a chance to be a really good Villanova team.”

With Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore, Villanova has one of the nation’s better backcourts. (An off shooting night in December, like Moore had Wednesday, going 3 for 13, is merely statistical noise.) It shouldn’t go unnoticed that Villanova’s starting forward combo, Jermaine Samuels and Brandon Slater, stack up well nationally. Not a big offensive game for Samuels? Slater merely made 7 of 8 shots, including 2 of 3 three-pointers. (Opinion: He’s turning into an NBA prospect.)

Then watch what Villanova center Eric Dixon is doing every possession at both ends. Every other Big 5 team would beg, borrow, and steal to have a Dixon.

It almost seems unfair to have Gillespie on the court as a fifth-year player for some of these games, considering how he’s honed his game. He’s gone from “maybe he could be an NBA player but probably Europe” early in his career to “he’ll get a shot eventually” to now: “You know what, he’ll be in the league.” (Donahue also pointed out that Gillespie has played more lifetime Palestra games than several of his own guards.)

Name another time when a player gets no assists, first time in a couple of seasons, and the opposing coach explains with full candor that speaks to Gillespie’s IQ. That passes weren’t going to be there, the way Penn likes to close off passing lanes, so Gillespie had to get to the basket, which he did to the tune of 26 points.

If Temple is on the right track, that would be an important civic development since right now, the Owls are 133rd in the rankings, just ahead of Liberty, Oakland, and Hofstra. The rest of the city: Drexel 175th, St. Joe’s 204th, Penn 211th, La Salle 243rd. Sure, the No. 6 team nationally would dominate this group.

What to do about it

Beyond the obvious need for improvement, a City tournament still is a must to get some life back in the City Series. It’s the right move, and has the strong support of at least half the coaches, with nobody saying no way.

» READ MORE: A Big 5 men's tournament is the right idea

Thinking the status quo is an exercise in maintaining tradition is dead wrong. “Are rollouts dead?” a press row vet asked Wednesday, noting the absence of rolled-out signs from the student section jabbing the opponent — the attempts at witticism that traditionally are a feature of Big 5 play, the misses sometimes as funny as the direct hits.

Nope, not dead. A reliable source reports Penn’s band had a ton of them Tuesday night at the Penn-La Salle women’s game. Also, let’s note half of Penn’s student body had never even been to a Big 5 game, since the Quakers didn’t play last season due to COVID-19.

So where are we? Everything dies, we’ve heard, that is a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back. As a group, the Big 5 athletic directors should consider breathing life back into the City Series a top priority. The corners keep speaking.