Listen, this isn’t the season to worry much about rivalries, and rivalry games being played. Even Big 5 games. For this one season, act like the Big 5 doesn’t exist. Without Penn playing any games, it really doesn’t. The Palestra is dark.
That’s all different from not wanting such games to happen, for hoping rivalries play out when possible.
Like this week, it turns out. Like when Villanova hosts St. Joseph’s Saturday night at the Finneran Pavilion.
Games come off 2020-21 schedules so quickly, it’s all barely even written in pencil. Villanova had been trying like crazy to get in its scheduled game with Virginia. Jay Wright had said before the season that he and Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett were both working hard on it. Fox got on board for this Saturday night, putting it on its big network in prime time, alternate programming against a lot of big football games. Madison Square Garden was willing to open its doors, even without fans.
Since there was no NCAA men’s basketball champion last spring, this game featured three of the last four national champs, with players still on both rosters from the 2018 and 2019 champions.
Not happening. Virginia couldn’t get past COVID-19 protocols. The Cavs were out.
So who was in?
“You would never do this in a regular season — you would never spend so much time on the day of a game on anything except the game, but you have to,” Jay Wright said Wednesday night after Villanova beat Butler in its home opener, talking about having to try to line up a replacement for Saturday night. “You’ve got to make quick decisions. We’re working on another game.”
Wright said they thought they’d had a couple of possible opponents for Madison Square Garden. “That’s what we were waiting for all day. They’ve fallen through. So we’re trying to get somebody to play here if we can.”
As it happened, there was one currently active Big 5 team not playing Saturday night. Name the biggest of traditional Big 5 rivalries? For St. Joseph’s fans, that’s easy. Villanova-St. Joe’s. Villanova fans may not admit it, but for them, it’s the same. They don’t sell T-shirts in the bookstore there for any other local games.
The wrinkle with this one, St. Joe’s, after playing Drexel on Thursday, had taken on a big one, Monday at Tennessee. Put together last week on the fly. So would St. Joe’s be willing to play Villanova on Saturday and jump on a plane for Knoxville the next day?
If it was the only way to get in the Holy War game. (Oops, sorry. Shouldn’t call it the Holy War.) The two schools had been scheduled to play earlier in the season, but St. Joe’s got hit by its own COVID issue and the game had to be postponed.
This wouldn’t be the big national game Fox was looking for, for full network purposes. But with a change in game time, moving what was an 8 p.m. Villanova-Virginia game to 9 p.m. (FS1) Villanova-SJU, it had itself a Philly rivalry game, and we’ll argue it could be a good one.
Fans of both schools can get a little excited, and fans of other Big 5 schools not currently on Villanova’s schedules can yawn and look away, but it’s more about getting games in when possible, and the 7.2 miles between the two campuses makes this one completely logical.
“I hope everybody understands when things don’t work out this year, how hard everybody works,” Wright said, asked Wednesday about the disappointment level of not playing Virginia. “Like Joel Fisher at the Garden — we were going to be the first game in there. They played a Knicks exhibition game to get ready for our game. They were working hard. We were being patient with Virginia. Virginia was being very honest, very up-front every day that they tested.”
It was a disappointment, Wright said. He wanted his guys to play at the Garden, and to play Virginia. He wasn’t suggesting it was a disappointment to play the Hawks. That game wasn’t on yet when Wright was talking. Hawks coach Billy Lange is a former Wright assistant. The lines of communication there are strong.
For his part, Lange has been outspoken about taking on an anytime, anywhere approach to scheduling. This fits that.
If Villanova-SJU is a consolation prize for one school after losing the marquee on the schedule, hoop fans in Philadelphia should still count it as a rare win in 2020. (Assuming it comes off as planned. Hey, it’s 2020.)