IN THE 55 SEASONS of Big 5 basketball, from the Guy Rodgers Temple teams of the 1950s to the Jameer Nelson Saint Joseph's teams of the 2000s, this city has seen some of the best in college basketball. What they are seeing in this time is the most dominant run in Big 5 history.
As Jay Wright's Villanova team gets set to play St. Joe's tonight at the Palestra, the numbers have become overwhelming. The Wildcats have won 20 of their last 21 City Series games. And they are not just winning the games. They are winning the games by unprecedented margins.
The only comparable run to Villanova's was from the great Penn teams of Dick Harter and Chuck Daly in the early 1970s. Those Quakers also won 20 of 21.
The difference? Only three of those 20 'Nova wins have been by fewer than 10 points. Those Penn teams had 11 single-digit wins.
And there was 90-47 in 1971. No, it wasn't a Big 5 game, but the Final Four was on the line when Villanova ended Penn's perfect season.
Trying to compare eras is futile anyway. There was no Big East when Penn made its run, very few televised games. Back then, winning the Big 5 was as important as making the NCAA Tournament.
Times have changed, but domination is domination.
So, how are they doing it?
"I don't know how to answer that," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "It's not just something that we think about because we're always so worried about the next game."
Which might be their secret. If you could crystallize one reason why Villanova is winning all these City Series games and all those other games, it would be that the players are all in, all the time.
"Where's the old upset?" St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "Jay and his staff have done a really good job of preparing their teams. They prepare for this game as if it was a Big East contest. That is one of the great strengths of their program. They don't play up and they don't play down. They play."
Wright, always deferential, pointed out that the Big 5 has been in transition during this run. It started just after Nelson and Delonte West left St. Joe's for the NBA. John Chaney left Temple. Fran Dunphy left Penn. La Salle still was trying to recover from the tribulations and eventual trial from the summer of 2004 headlines.
That might be true, but the numbers are the numbers. Villanova is doing it on the court.
"The thing that jumps out to me is their talent level has been just extraordinary," Martelli said.
Martelli's two 4-0 Big 5 teams (2003, 2004) won their games by a then-record 67 points in 2003 and 64 points in 2004. As 'Nova's run was hitting its stride, the Randy Foye team promptly broke that record in 2006 when they won the four games by a combined 83 points. These 'Cats have won their first two City Series games by 56 points, with the Hawks tonight and the Owls on Sunday.
The wonderful 1989-90 La Salle team, with three future NBA players, beat Penn, Villanova and Temple by a combined five points.
The 32-4 Temple team (1986-87) beat La Salle by four and 'Nova by two. No. 1 Temple (1987-88) beat La Salle by three.
Villanova's 1985 national champions beat Temple and St. Joe's each by three.
St. Joe's swept the Big 5 in 1979-80. Three of the wins were by a point. One was by four points.
This isn't like that. This isn't like anything.
Still . . .
"All I can remember is all the great upsets," Wright said. "I've seen them all as a kid."
It is just that his team isn't getting upset.
"I think it's something that maybe when we're done that we'll think about," Wright said. "But we really don't think about it all now."
What Wright has done is put together a national program in a city that has really only had one over the last quarter-century. That would be Chaney's Temple teams.
The Wildcats (8-0) are ranked No. 3 on merit. They are not there because they were in the 2009 Final Four. They are there because they have been able to sustain excellence over time and are having a terrific start to this season.
Martelli's team is the only one to have beaten 'Nova during its run. It was at tonight's venue in 2008. That, however, was a different time.
The Hawks, an NCAA team that season, won 77-55. It was a rout in every sense. It was also Villanova's fifth consecutive loss. Those Wildcats were so traumatized they won 10 of their next 13 and ended up in the Sweet 16 where they lost to eventual national champion Kansas. They parlayed that run to last season's Final Four.
The Hawks actually outplayed Villanova last season at the Pavilion. They really should have won, but they didn't. Villanova found a way.
If St. Joe's (3-4) wins tonight, it will be one of the biggest upsets in Big 5 history. Martelli spent Monday looking at tape. He was searching for something that would give him hope. He is still searching.
"I look and I probe and I try to pull a thread," Martelli said. "I'm just not certain other than to be brutally honest with my players and say, 'None of you would get in the game for Villanova.' Yet, all of their guys would get in the game and get a lot of minutes for me. There is a big gap here."
The truth is the truth. And that is the truth.
No Penn players would get any run for Villanova. Temple's Lavoy Allen could get some time for 'Nova, but he would have to play much harder than he sometimes does. Same for La Salle's Rodney Green.
This Villanova run is not likely to end soon. Wright and his staff target players. These days, players are targeting the Wildcats. And that surprises Wright.
"It really does," he said. "It's new to us that sometimes we're saying no to someone that we know 3 or 4 years ago we'd be killing to get that guy."
They are getting coveted recruits. They are in with coveted recruits. They are going up against Kentucky for players and getting them.
"We're starting to learn that you've got to make your decisions, you've got to pick your guys," Wright said. "And you've got to know some of the guys you don't take are going to be really good somewhere else."
They don't make many recruiting mistakes.
"In recruiting, you can often be wrong," Martelli said. "They haven't been wrong. And guys wait their turn."
As Wright was relaxing in the Verizon Center stands before the 'Cats' game with Maryland on Sunday night, he drew a steady stream of fans wanting an autograph, a picture, a word. He was trying to watch the George Washington-Navy game. His former assistant Billy Lange coaches Navy. Wright didn't see much of the game before he headed for the locker room.
His public life has changed somewhat. So has his professional life. His program is hot. Some of the country's best high school talent wants to play for him.
Villanova gets 350 tickets for tonight's game. No doubt, some more of their fans will find a way into the Palestra. But it won't be a friendly house. And it won't matter. These players just play the game. And they win the games. *