IF THE City Series game of the year were about whom you played rather than how you are playing, one would have to like Temple tonight at Villanova. But basketball is never quite that simple.
It is about when you play, where you play, individual matchups and, most importantly, how you play for those 40 minutes. The past is sometimes a guide, but many just cite historical numbers because analyzing specific matchups can be a bit more complicated.
If only history mattered, Villanova, which had won an amazing 21 of 22 Big 5 games, would have won at Temple last season. The Owls would have packed it in after trailing 35-21 with 4 minutes left in the first half that day.
Instead, the Owls outscored Villanova, 54-30, in the final 24 minutes and won, 75-65. During that stretch, Temple was 16-for-25 overall and 9-for-14 from the arc. Juan Fernandez could not miss. He finished with 33 points on 11-for-15 shooting, 7-for-9 from the arc.
Temple's Fran Dunphy and Villanova's Jay Wright have watched the tape of that game. Not to relive it, but to get a few clues that might help in this game.
Four starters in this game did not score a point. Ramone Moore and Scootie Randall were bit players for the Owls at that point of the season. Maalik Wayns was a substitute for the Wildcats. Mouphtaou Yarou was ill with hepatitis.
Scottie Reynolds had 23 for Villanova that day. Ryan Brooks had 20 for Temple. Neither will be scoring for their schools anymore.
Villanova (10-1) is ranked eighth. Temple (9-2) is ranked 25th. Rankings are more about what voters thought you were supposed to be than actual performance.
The Owls are 15th in the RPI, the Wildcats 34th. Why? Temple, with games against Seton Hall, Georgia, Maryland, Georgetown and Texas A&M, has the 33rd-ranked strength of schedule while 'Nova, with a backloaded schedule filled with brutal Big East games, has a schedule strength of 154.
How the teams are playing really trumps everything. And both teams are really starting to play very well.
Seniors Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher are playing with great confidence for Villanova.
The Owls have more good options than at any time during Dunphy's tenure. And senior big man Lavoy Allen is still there as one of the sport's best last lines of defense.
"They are really good," Wright said. "I actually think they are better than last year. Obviously, they gave us trouble last year. In the last few games, Randall is hitting shots, Moore scoring the way he is and Khalif Wyatt now. They've got some weapons. And [Micheal] Eric and Lavoy Allen have been studs for the last few years. And Fernandez isn't even making shots yet."
If there is one X-factor for tonight, it might be Fernandez, the best three-point shooter in the Atlantic 10 last season. He is just 10-for-49 (20.4 percent) from the arc this season after shooting 73-for-161 (45.3 percent) last season.
"I think he is trying to be perfect, instead of just playing and let the game come to him a little bit more," Dunphy said. "I think that's a natural reaction to coming into a new and different season with a little bit different role."
Fernandez played off the ball last season. This season, he has the ball. And he does not have the steady Brooks and Luis Guzman back there with him. Brooks made all the right basketball plays and Guzman rarely made mistakes with the ball.
"I'm asking him to be perfect, but I'll accept pretty good," Dunphy said. "I think he'll be all right in the end. He's better now than he was a couple of weeks ago."
The stroke is there in practice. It really should be a matter of time. Tonight would be a good time for Temple.
Fisher had been struggling with his shot. No more. And every shot Stokes puts up looks good.
Beyond the individual matchups, this is very likely for the Big 5 title, even though this is Temple's first City Series game. The Wildcats are already 3-0, a win away from a fourth perfect Big 5 season in 6 years.
"Their guard play has been extraordinary over the years," Dunphy said. "This is really no exception . . . And I think their bigs are playing better."
The Wildcats force action. Fisher has to be one of the best finishers in the sport. And he gets to the foul line like a really good post player, only he does it off drives. In his three-plus seasons, he has attempted 490 free throws.
"He's just terrific at finishing plays," Dunphy said.
Just like his team has been terrific at finishing these City Series games.
"You've got a guy like Jay who just respects every city game that he's in, not that the rest of us don't," Dunphy said. "When you have really good players and you respect the game as much as Jay has over the years, you know they are going to be able to get on a little bit of a roll like they have. We were fortunate to win the game last year. We're going to have to play just as well this year to say the same thing."
Big pictures are not something many coaches can handle during a season. It is just about the next game. Some games, however, have a bit more meaning. This would be one of those.
That Temple took Villanova's Big 5 title last season is, at the very least, a subplot.
"We look at all that stuff at the end of the year," Wright said. "We really look hard during the season at 'next game.' Whatever happens, win or lose, you don't want it to affect your first Big East game. We take a day at the end of the season and go through a list, how did we do in the Big 5, how did we do in the Big East. At the end of the year last year, we said, 'We didn't win the Big 5. Temple got us.' "
So Villanova has not forgotten what it felt like to lose this game. Nor has Temple forgotten what it felt like to win it.
So what about tonight (7 o'clock, ESPN2)?
"We're similar to them," Wright said. "I think we're starting to get a feel for who we are and how we want to use people. I think they might be a little bit ahead of us right now, but we're both at about the same point."
Which brings us back to the game of the year in the city. None of the Villanova seniors - Stokes, Fisher and Antonio Pena - has lost a game on campus. Villanova rarely loses Big 5 games anymore. Temple is more tested to this point of this season. Many of the same players were on the court last season when the Owls beat the Wildcats.
We shall see soon enough. *