Greetings from my second annual turn on Philly.com's Christmas morning shift. I hope the holiday is going well for all of you, though I figure (and hope, frankly) that you're all still asleep as I write this post.
Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to speak with ESPN TV analyst Fran Fraschilla. He'll be the color analyst for the Villanova-Marquette game on New Year's Day, and although he's a New York native, he's very well-versed in the Big 5 as well as the national scene.
Indeed, before I could even ask Fraschilla a question, he told me that there's "nothing better than being at a Big 5 game with a soft pretzel and mustard."
The guy knows his audience.
We started by talking a bit about this coming Monday's big showdown between Temple and Villanova on the Main Line. Fraschilla gives the Wildcats the edge because the game is on their floor, but he's been impressed by the Owls' play so far this season.
"Temple certainly has shown over the course of the season that they have a chance to play with anybody and beat most anybody," Fraschilla said. "I’ve been impressed with the job Fran [Dunphy] is doing, [and] Dionte Christmas is one of the best scorers in the country."
Since Fraschilla is also one of the best analysts of European basketball in the American media, I asked what he thought of Sergio Olmos' development on North Broad Street.
Fraschilla admitted he didn't know too much about Olmos before he came to Temple, but said that "his evolution’s definitely impressed me."
"Spanish kids are typically very bright kids and easily coachable, so it’s no surprise that someone with Sergio’s size and agility has started to develop into a quality college player," Fraschilla said. "He’s put himself into a position to come back and be a very serviceable Spanish league player - which to me is the best league in Europe. It’s the best league in the world underneath the NBA."
Given the growth of basketball in Europe, it's fair to ask whether the continent is an undervalued resource for college-level talent. Granted, the player development system in European sports, which is largely based on team-run academies, is completely different from the system in America. And I'm sure it would cost plenty of money to recruit in Europe on a regular basis.
But Fraschilla said there's plenty of talent to be had across the Atlantic.
"When there’s a young man like Sergio Olmos who may not be good enough to be signed by a professional club, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s not good enough to come over here and be an impact college player," Fraschilla said.
Now for the Wildcats. As with almost any discussion about a Big East team this year, the main talking point with Fraschilla was the challenge posed by the size of the conference. He called the league's depth "unparalleled," but isn't as convinced as some are that this season will be the best for a conference in college basketball history.
"The talk of the best league of all time, I don’t buy," he said. "I coached at Providence in 1990-91 when seven of the nine teams got into the NCAA Tournament. The eighth team, Providence, knocked off Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament and we thought we got in."
Fraschilla also cited the famed 1984-85 season, when Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's all made the Final Four. That was the only time in history that three teams from a conference made the Final Four - and it's a bit hard to see it happening this year, isn't it?
My next question was whether the 16-team Big East might just be too big. This is where I thought Fraschilla had the best insights, so consider it a reward to you for reading all this way through the post.
"It’s unwieldy, but manageable - there are inherent complications in having 16 teams," he said. "The fact that they’ve been able to maintain some sense of Big East traidtion has been positive, but there are somet things that are negative about the fact that the league is too big."
I asked whether having all 16 teams participate in the Big East Tournament is one of those negatives. Fraschilla said it definitely is.
"The simple fact that some teams are going to be playing for seemingly an eentire week I think is going to be detrimental to the league," he said. "You’re talking about a really good team playing the fifth, sixth or seventh seed that’s going to potentially wear itself out going through the Big East Tournament. It’s going to be a Bataan Death March for the middle-of-the-pack teams."
(Yes, I had some vague idea of what the Bataan Death March was when he mentioned it, even though I wasn't close to being alive at the time.)
Fraschilla added that he's "always been a believer in the middle of the pack teams in a great league being the teams that can do the most damage in the NCAA Tournament. But now that’s negated by the fact that they’re going to have a long run through the Big East Tournament."
That got me thinking. A middle-of-the-pack Big East team that did serious damage in the NCAA Tournament last year and brings a lot of players back this season? Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Fraschilla agreed that Villanova very much fits the bill described above, and he likes this year's squad, too.
"The thing about 'Nova that makes them so dangerous is they have an outstanding set of guards [and] they’ve got one of the most improved players in the coutnry in Dante Cunningham," he said. "It’s been remarkable the way he’s improved over the four years, to the point where I think he’s going to be an NBA draft pick."
I concluded the interview by asking what kind of respect the Big 5 gets nationally these days. Temple-Villanova will get national attention because of the quality of the teams involved. But will people outside this area understand the rivalry aspect of it?
"Those basketball purists like myself we know what that rivalry means," Fraschilla said. "But because of the growth of the Big East and the Atlantic 10 over the last 15-20 years, I think it negates, sadly, the importance of the Big 5, at least nationally."
Fraschilla gets it, though, and told one last story about his experience calling a Big 5 game a few years back.
"One of the best venues I’ve ever been a part of was the year St. Joe's beat Villanova in the Palestra with Delonte West and Jameer Nelson," he said. "The environment was every bit as good as any place I've ever been. That type of passion is lost nationally - people nationally don’t understand the tradition and the underlying hostility that goes along with Big 5 rivalries."
Best wishes to all of you for a happy, healthy and above all peaceful holiday season. Join me Monday night for live coverage of one of the biggest Big 5 games in quite a while, as Temple opens its City Series schedule against Villanova at the Pavilion. I don't know yet if I'll be at the game, but if not I'll blog the game off the TV broadcast.
Regardless of where you watch it, though, it should be quite an occasion.