Temple, St. Joseph's, and La Salle, the three local Atlantic Ten Conference basketball schools, are finishing up their regular-season schedules this week and are about to begin the exciting and terrifying ride along the tournament highway.
"I agree with the terrifying part," said Temple coach Fran Dunphy. "Each game is terrifying, to be honest. The players don't always see it that way because life doesn't have that finality for them. As you get older, though, you see each day and each opportunity as a gift and you have to make the most of it."
The fortunes of these city and conference rivals have risen and ebbed over the years, and it is rare that all three field competitive and dangerous teams in the same season. This is the first time since La Salle joined the A-10 for the 1995-96 season that Temple, St. Joe's and La Salle have each won at least 18 games.
How rare is it? The last time these three schools all had 18 or more wins in a season, St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli was head coach at Bishop Kenrick High School, Dunphy was an assistant at American University, and La Salle coach John Giannini was a senior forward at North Central College in Illinois.. That was the 1983-84 season. The leading scorers for those city teams were Tony Costner for the Hawks, Ralph Lewis for La Salle and Terence Stansbury for the Owls. In other words, not yesterday.
"It's definitely been a very strong year for the city," Giannini said. "I knew the other two teams were having really good years and we've been doing our part up until recently."
On paper, Temple is the best of the lot, ranked nationally and with a veteran team that has all the components for a good run in the conference and NCAA tournaments. St. Joseph's is young, but strong inside and out, and maturing quickly as evidenced by an impressive win Saturday over the Owls. La Salle is built around four excellent guards, but some rebounding and turnover issues have led to a recent late-season slump. Even so, the Explorers took Temple to overtime last week and had two shots to win it at the end.
"Anyone paying attention is keenly aware of the strides La Salle has made and I told John that I was really impressed by their unselfishness. That's a very good team," Martelli said. "With Temple, that's the top of the league. I watch them and track them with admiration. Dunph has a remarkable ability to get the best out of his players. He's not only a great man, he's a hell of a coach."
Very true, but every coach also gets better when the 6-foot-11 interior presence on his team comes back from injury in time to get in shape and make a difference. Temple's Micheal Eric returned a month ago from a patella injury and he is the difference between a very good team – animated by guards Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez – and a potentially great one.
"I like our presence in the backcourt, and having Eric in there is helping us, and I feel good about where we are," Dunphy said. "If at the beginning of the year, you said, 'You're going to be 22-6 and will have won five of your six city games,' I might have signed on the dotted line. But we should have been a better team than we were Saturday night (against St. Joseph's). We needed to play our best and we didn't. A lot of credit for that goes to St. Joe's, but we weren't as ready as we need to be."
The Hawks, befitting a team that plays five sophomores and a freshman in its regular seven-man rotation, are exciting but sometimes inconsistent. C.J. Aiken is a premier shot-blocker and he has help on the inside as well, and guard Langston Galloway may be the most deadly shooter from range in the area. It's hard to get to the basket against St. Joseph's, but the Hawks' offense is sporadic.
"We're still a work in progress. Perfect example is last week, we were flat at home and scored 49 points against Richmond. Then we play the best the league has to offer in Temple and score 82 points," Martelli said. "Our age is our age, but I said to them this week, 'You're no longer sophomores. You're 60 games into your career.' We have really good guys who have some flaws. I told them that their idiosyncrasies can't become our distractions. Not this late in the year."
La Salle, having lost five of six, knows about late-season issues, even though the Explorers have been in every game to the end. This team will go as far as the collective perimeter attack of guards Earl Pettis, Sam Mills, Tyreek Duren and Ramon Galloway will take them. At their best, that could be a ways.
"It's been a simple process, just seeing what worked best for us," Giannini said. "What happened was we played our best players, and our strength is those four guards who have had a lot of success playing together. This season has been a reinvigoration for the program. We knew we had good talent, but we underachieved the last couple of years. But we knew we weren't down the way outside people thought going into this year."
The Atlantic Ten tournament begins in a week with campus-site games for some of the lower seeds before moving to Atlantic City for three days beginning March 9. If a team from Philly, any team, wins the title, it wouldn't be a big surprise.
"Anyone can win it," Dunphy said. "There are a bunch of teams in the league that can win three or four games in a row."
That is the terrifying part. Everything that went into the previous four months can come down to a bounce of the ball. Of these three schools, only Temple seems assured of an NCAA bid no matter what, but the end, whenever it arrives, is always marked by its suddenness.
"It's almost melancholy," Martelli said. "I don't care if you think you're going to the NCAA. I don't care if you think you're going to the NIT. Everything can become an elimination game. You never know when they're going to tell you to collect the uniforms."
These three Philadelphia schools all have uniforms worth wearing this season, and that has been only an occasional treat to watch for local basketball fans. It is a treat to savor in this quiet moment as March prepares its annual tricks.