Phil Martelli already knew about the intense interest in Saturday's 8 p.m. game at Hagan Arena between his St. Joseph's Hawks and visiting Villanova.
The St. Joseph's basketball coach just didn't realize the extent that some would go for tickets.
It's Big Five basketball at its best, albeit in a different setting.
The game will be played on the campus of St. Joseph's for the first time ever, in 4,200-seat Hagan Arena. This is a series that dates back to 1921. Villanova leads the series, 44-24, and has won three in a row and six of seven against the Hawks.
The first-ever Big Five game between the two took place Dec. 14, 1955, with St. Joseph's winning, 83-70, at the Palestra.
So on Monday, while preparing for a 6 a.m. practice, Martelli was up before 4 a.m. and saw an e-mail request from an acquaintance, who is an alumnus of St. Joseph's.
"He asked me if I could give his heart surgeon two tickets because he saved his life this summer," Martelli said earlier this week on a conference call.
"As of 3:59 a.m. [Monday] I was out of the ticket business," he said.
Martelli gave his players a similar message.
"I told them they are out of the ticket business," he said. "I said, you have four comps, deal with it with yourself and your family and put it all aside."
Easier said than done.
"People I don't even know have been coming up asking me for tickets," said St. Joseph's junior guard Carl Jones, who averages a team-high 19.4 points.
According to St. Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia, Big Five rules stipulate that the visiting team is guaranteed 350 tickets, regardless of the venue.
Even with the remaining tickets, St. Joseph's hasn't been able to keep up with the demand of its fans, but DiJulia still felt it was important to play the game on campus.
"We weighed everything out and felt that the anticipation and excitement this would create would make this the right thing to do," DiJulia said.
As for the ticket demands he has received?
"It's been off the charts," DiJulia said.
The Big Five may not have quite the appeal it did in decades past, but Villanova-St. Joseph's is still an awfully heated rivalry.
"I call this the local basketball Army-Navy rivalry," DiJulia said.
Besides the scarcity of tickets, there is one other factor that should turn up the already heated thermostat: The two teams appear to be evenly matched. St. Joseph's is 7-3 and coming off last Saturday's 80-71 win over previously undefeated Creighton at Hagan Arena. After that game, the Hawks fans stormed the court in celebration after spending the contest cheering their lungs out.
Villanova (6-4) has struggled, which is no surprise for a team that has five freshmen and no scholarship seniors. Then again, St. Joseph's doesn't have a senior, either.
The perception is that Villanova, with seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, has come back to the pack, even though the Wildcats remain a formidable opponent.
No doubt Villanova coach Jay Wright will have his team prepared, even if there is a feeling of the unknown by competing at Hagan Arena.
"I have no idea what to expect from this game," Wright said to reporters. "In the St. Joseph's games we have played at the Palestra recently, there have been all St. Joe fans. So that's a tough place to play, too."
Now this adds another dynamic.
"But going to Hagan Arena? I cannot imagine what that is going to be like," Wright said.
The Hawks are perceived as a young and rising team. Just this week St. Joseph's received five votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. It marked the first time since the 2007-08 season that the Hawks have received votes in one of the weekly rankings.
Martelli often refers to his team as a work in progress, and that is a description that certainly fits Villanova. Regardless of any early struggles by the Wildcats, this is expected to be a tight game.
And a loud one at that.
"I think the Villanova atmosphere will be louder than what we had against Creighton," Jones said. "Villanova may be our biggest game of the year."
And for sure, the toughest ticket for Hawks fans.
As if there isn't enough spirit in the St. Joseph's basketball rivalry with Villanova, more will be added before Saturday's 8 p.m. Big Five game at Hagan Arena.
Former St. Joseph's player Steve Donches and ex-Villanova star Billy Melchionni will present the game ball to the officials prior to tipoff.
On Jan. 16, 1966, Donches hit a buzzer-beater to give St. Joseph's a 71-69 win over Villanova at the Palestra.
Melchionni, who would later play for the 76ers and the ABA's New York Nets, was a key member of that Villanova team.
In another symbolic gesture, St. Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia said that tickets would be left at the door for former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino and ex-St. Joseph's coach Jack Ramsay.
"Neither is coming, but we are leaving an envelope with tickets at the game in honor of the rivalry," DiJulia said. "These are two cornerstone people who have helped in making this such a great rivalry."
- Marc Narducci