Monday, June 15, 2009

Rivalries -- The Big 5

A City Tradition
I first learned about the Big 5 when I was a freshman at Villanova. My roomate, a native of Trenton, New Jersey and a die hard Phillies/Eagles fan, was a huge fan of The City Series. And little wonder. If the rest of the country had difficulty seeing a college basketball outside of the campus gym (NCAA finals & the UCLA/Houston game of 1966 excepted) fans of the Big 5 saw many of their series games televised throughout the Philadelphia media market, one of the innovations introduced with the inception of the series back in the 1950s. The series was approaching its peak years, still flying under the national sports radar. Lacking an "outsider's perspective" may have been a mixed blessing as Philadelphia fans developed a fondness for many of the rivalries' more passionate traditions -- the signs and pranks (good), the chant-counter chants (very good) and the confetti and streamer blizzard that celebrated the first basket of the game (very bad). The "1st Basket Celebration" required a time out to clear the debris off the Palestra floor. The fans stubbornly clung to this tradition until the NCAA instructed referees to assess a technical "delay of game/hazardous playing conditions" on the team whose fans tossed the confetti. Even then one or two "T"s had to be assessed before that "tradition" passed into the ages.

While bound by a renewable contract, the five schools entered into this quasi-conference playing arrangement in an era before the wholesale rise of conferences in the Northeast. Only the University of Pennsylvania belonged to an all sports conference in 1954, though St. Joseph's would join the MAC later in the 1950s.

Series Standings, 1955-2009
I reviewed and compiled these standings, using the records over at the University of Pennsylvania archives and Records Center, in addition to the media guides for the five schools (La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph's, Temple and Villanova). The record, compiled by an unacknowledged archivist, recorded the dates, scores, attendance and a short capsule for every one of the Big 5 games from 1955 (the first season) to 2000. Through the end of the 2008-09 series the teams have played 200 games apiece in the series, the composites:
La SallePennSt. JoeTempleNovaWins
La Salle----2420162383
St. Joseph's3034----2522111

La Salle831170.415
St. Joseph's111890.555

Ironically, Penn owns the worst overall winning percentage in the series, but the Quakers also have the best single decade winning percentage during the full round robin periods -- 0.725, earned for their 29-11 record compiled 1971-80. Over the course of that decade, those Quaker teams went to eight NCAA postseason tournaments, finished #1 in the big 5 six times and won eight Ivy League titles. The late Chuck Daly coached those teams from the 1970-71 season through the 1976-77 season, compiling a 125-38 (0.767) record. Note that Temple posted a 0.792 winning percentage during the period 1991-2000 on a record of 19-5. Most of that decade saw the Big 5 teams play a reduced (2 game) round robin in which the opponents/match ups were rotated. Villanova is however, on the verge of equaling (if not besting) both of those records. The Wildcats teams of 2001-02 through 2009-09 have compiled a 29-7 (0.806) record. If they lose all 4 games (perish the thought) next season, they will do no worse than tie the Quaker's 1971-80 record, while going 3-1 (or better) will translate into a winning percentage of 0.800 (or 0.825). If the Quakers have the lowest winning percentage, it is the Explorers who hold the dubious distinction of holding no advantage among the series rivals. La Salle finds itself on the losing side of each of their Big 5 series. La Salle (see table above) is Penn's saving grace.

Passing the Baton
The Hawks dominated the series in the period 1955-1970, piling up a winning percentage so significant (0.700) that it took nearly 2½ decades of mediocre ball (a 0.450 winning percentages overall) to bring St. Joseph's back to the rest of the field. An o'fer record in series games during the 1994 season opened the door for the Temple Owls & John Chaney to pass the Hawks. Their 0.450'ish winning percentage stalled the Hawks, but Temple under Coach Chaney posted a sizzling 33-11 record from 1982-83 (his first at Temple) to 1993-94 (when the baton passed from Hawk Hill to North Broad), an impressive 0.788 winning percentage. The Owls tenure atop the Big 5 ended this past season, a product of (as much?) rebuilding as the Owls transitioned from the Chaney Era to the Dunphy Era, as Villanova's record setting (2001-09) winning pace.

At a Glance
I have juxtaposed few odds and ends of interest in the tables below...
La SalleTemple16340.320Nova23270.460
PennsylvaniaNova14360.280La Salle28220.560
St. Joseph'sNova22280.440Penn34160.680
Temple[1]24260.480La Salle34160.680

Note [1] -- Both St. Joseph's and Villanova have 26-24 (0.520) records versus Temple.
As mirror programs, note that La Salle does not have a >0.500 record versus any of the Big 5 members, while Villanova does not have a <0.500 record versus those Big 5 members. Given their standings (and proximity in the Big 5 standings) it is hardly surprising that Villanova is a nemesis to 3 programs and Temple is nemesis to 2 programs. Odd then, that La Salle has had such (relative) success against Nova. The Villanova-Penn series is, by the way, the most lopsided in the City Series.

La Salle[2]19210.4751991-008160.333
St. Joseph's1961-7025150.6251971-8017230.425

Note [2] -- La Salle recorded an identical 19-21 (0.475) record in both the 1961-70 and 1981-90 decades.
The historical competitiveness of the series is such that each program has had (at least) one <0.500 decade, while also having (La Salle excepted) at least one >0.500 decade. Temple & Villanova can boast of a single sub 0.500 decade each, hardly surprising that their "Worst Decade" (along with St. Joseph's) would coincide with Penn's "Best Decade". St. Joseph's, not quite as fortunate as Temple and Villanova, suffered through a second sub 0.500 decade, 1991-00, albeit given the abbreviated round robin, the Hawks' record (11-13) yielded a 0.458 winning percentage.

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