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Big 5 games are worth a try as much for safety as nostalgia | Mike Jensen

The Big 5 (or even City 6) teams could hold a tournament, or spread the games out. "Taking out travel certainly takes out a big complication," said Penn AD Grace Calhoun.

Coach Jay Wright, left, of Villanova greeted Temple coach Fran Dunphy before a game at Villanova's Finneran Pavilion in 2018.
Coach Jay Wright, left, of Villanova greeted Temple coach Fran Dunphy before a game at Villanova's Finneran Pavilion in 2018.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The NCAA Division I Council was in the midst of voting on a slew of proposals earlier this week, the big one being when the basketball season could start.

“I’m watching all my devices,” said Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun, who moonlights as the chair of the Division I Council. “I feel my phone vibrate.”

She looked at the caller ID. Fran Dunphy.

“I thought she was over and done with that,” Dunphy said the next day, fully aware of what Calhoun was doing that day. That’s why he was calling. Now Temple’s interim athletic director, the former Penn and Temple head coach wanted a head start on hearing details of how everything was going to work.

Calhoun related this in answer to a question about whether a Big 5 basketball slate is feasible this season.

In the midst of everything going on, Big 5 games obviously can’t be the tail that wags any dog. It just will be interesting to see if a full round-robin is even feasible in 2020-21, as four games were cut from the maximum allowable D-I men’s games and the front end of the season shortened by a couple of weeks. There are slightly different wrinkles for the women’s schedule.

The biggest hurdle to get to Big 5 games (other than the pandemic itself) is Calhoun’s own school. Penn isn’t conducting games this fall semester. Which brings up the question, could games start as soon as the fall semester ends, or not until January?

“Discussions are ongoing,” Calhoun said on that one. “Athletic directors as well as Ivy presidents continue to meet very regularly. All we know, there won’t be any [Ivy] competition during the fall semester. … There’s a lot to sort through.”

Let’s say the Ivy decides to start play Jan. 5, emphasizing the 14 league games. It’s possible that the American Athletic Conference (Temple), Atlantic 10 (La Salle and St. Joseph’s), or the Big East (Villanova) could decide their own teams wouldn’t play any nonconference games after the new year. There goes the Big 5 round-robin right there.

When Jay Wright had a Zoom call Thursday, I asked Villanova’s coach whether Big 5 games could fit in.

“I hope so,” Wright said. "I really do. We have the Temple game already is outside the new schedule ... "

Meaning it was slated for Nov. 24, and the season now isn’t allowed to start before Nov. 25. Dunphy wondered if the NCAA would grant a waiver to start the night before, but let’s assume that’s a no, since it would start down a slippery slope.

Then Wright brought up Penn and the questions involving when the Quakers could play.

“To answer your question honestly, we’re probably not going to be able to look at it like the Big 5 this year, we’re probably going to have to look it like, can we schedule a Penn game? Can we fit the Temple game in?" Wright said. "Right now, La Salle and St. Joe’s are good. They’re scheduled within [Villanova’s season timetable]. Then we’ve got to wait for the Big East schedule to come in.”

Big picture, Big 5 games make sense to try to play, having nothing to do with nostalgia or tradition or rivalries, simply because of the pandemic.

“We are going to be somewhat at the mercy to what conferences decide, and what institutions decide," Calhoun said. “But when you think about how to play sports as safely as possible, taking out travel certainly takes out a big complication. If you only need to bus your athletes five minutes and take out a hotel night, you’re taking out a potential danger. I would love to see our city games be playing, not just for the rivalries, they are some of the safest games we can play.”

So, an idea … this could be the season for a little Big 5 or City 6 tournament. It would still call for Penn to be allowed to start in December -- but if that gets approval from the Ivy presidents, here’s the thought:

If it’s the City 6, two schools get byes, the other four play. Everybody gets at least two games out of the deal. Winners move into the semifinals, losers play each other for the second game. Semifinal winners and losers then face off.

If La Salle and St. Joe’s are up against it on the number of games, let them play each other in the first round, call it an A-10 game. Villanova might like this whole concept, with only two games committed to City Series play. (Yes, Villanova would get one of the two byes.)

If Penn isn’t allowed in, it could still work. Villanova gets a double bye. (Why? Look up the national rankings.) The other four face off, winners play, survivor gets Villanova. You’d get a local champion out of the deal.

Since fans presumably wouldn’t be allowed in, it doesn’t matter where or how the games would be played. If a doubleheader isn’t safe, don’t do it. The Palestra would be great as a television backdrop, but safety comes first. Whatever works. The games could be spread around. This could work for men and women.

“Over the years, we’ve talked about it,” Dunphy said of a Big 5 tournament. “There hasn’t been any talk recently.”

In a normal year, I wouldn’t love this idea. The full round-robin works. This would be less than the norm. And no, it wouldn’t be some big celebration of local hoops if the stands are empty. That’s not the point. Maybe I’m missing a wrinkle that makes a tournament a no-go. (Biggest obstacle: timing. Could conference issues clear up in time to organize it?) But if it isn’t on the table -- call this a table.

“I don’t think anything is off the table,” Dunphy said.

“What we’re all trying to do is get the most amount of games that we can,” Wright said. “I hope the Big 5 can create easy access for us to get games. I hope.”