PHILADELPHIA — Zach Spiker was soaked in sweat, but he had no desire to change his shirt. “Holy cow” was about all he could say as he came off the court at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon. “I mean, holy cow.”
Spiker’s Drexel team had just stunned 18th-ranked Villanova, 57-55, in — wait for it — the fifth-place game of the first Big Five Classic.
“What an awesome day for basketball in Philadelphia,” the Dragons coach said a few minutes later after catching his breath. “It’s a great day for Drexel, for Drexel basketball, for everyone connected to Drexel in any way.”
Remember, a fifth-place game.
This sort of thing can happen only in the Big Five. This is Drexel’s first season as an official member after 50 years on the outside looking in. The Dragons, who began playing Division I basketball in 1974, scheduled two games against Big Five teams most seasons, but they weren’t eligible to be Big Five champions. The other five teams — Villanova, St. Joseph’s, Temple, Penn and La Salle — played a round robin most years since the 1950s, while Drexel waited its turn to be a full-fledged member.
“It was being talked about when I first got here,” said Spiker, who is in his eighth season at Drexel. “We all thought it had to happen at some point, and finally it did.”
It became official in March, much to the chagrin of a small cadre of Big Five traditionalists. The coaches, led by Penn’s Steve Donahue, were the driving force in finally getting it done.
“Steve was the one who kept pushing it and kept me up-to-date on what was going on,” Spiker said. “Not sure this happens if not for him.”
Less than 20 minutes before Donahue’s team tipped in the third-place game against La Salle, Spiker sprinted between people trying to congratulate him in an attempt to find Donahue. The two men semi-hugged — Donahue has been sick — and instantly lapsed into coach-speak about Justin Moore’s last shot for Villanova, which was blocked by Amari Williams with three seconds left. It was one of five blocks for Williams, a lefty from Nottingham, England, which is a long way from south Philadelphia.
“Basketball’s not very big in England,” Williams said. “So playing in a building like this in front of a crowd like this was a new thing for me.”
The entire day was new for everyone. When Drexel was finally added, the format for the new six-team Big Five was changed. Instead of the five teams playing four games apiece, the teams were divided into two three-team pods. Each team played two games — one home and one away — leading to Saturday’s tripleheader. Tradition might have dictated the games be played in the 8,722-seat Palestra, which is where the Big Five was born in 1955. But logistics and, of course, money meant the games would be played in the 21,000-seat home of the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Would have been wonderful to play in the Palestra,” St. Joseph’s Coach Billy Lange said. “But you just barely have enough space to play a doubleheader in there. Three games would have been impossible.”
Lange’s team beat Temple, 74-65, in the championship game for its first outright Big Five title since 2003-04 after La Salle defeated Penn, 93-92, in overtime on a banked 35-footer by Khalil Brantley at the buzzer. In all, it was a remarkable eight hours of basketball in front of an announced total of 15,215.
“Did it four times in high school,” Brantley said laughing while his coach, Fran Dunphy, rolled his eyes. “Seriously, I felt like I let my team down on Wednesday when I missed the two free throws [in the second overtime of a triple-overtime loss to Temple] and I owed the guys one.”
There were plenty of skeptics about this new format. The move to Wells Fargo was certainly a logistical help, but the corporate influence was at least as important. Ticket prices were sky-high, from $500 for Spike Lee seats to $150 for lower bowl seats to $45 upstairs. It wasn’t surprising that the one section that was full for all three games was, as Penn’s Clark Slajchert put it, “the nosebleed seats.” Or, as legendary Philadelphia sportswriter Dick “Hoops” Weiss phrased it, “the place where the real basketball fans sit.”
But any issues were outweighed by the simple act of getting all six schools in the building at once, as well as by the quality of the games. It began with students tossing streamers on the court after each team’s first basket, a Big Five tradition that had largely gone away in recent years because of the NCAA’s refusal to recognize there’s a difference between celebratory streamers once a game and objects thrown in anger that can hurt people.
On Saturday, the six coaches informed the officials they wouldn’t shoot free throws if technical fouls were called, and the streamers flew. It was sweet.
Big Five coaches are friends. They all appear at several events a year to raise money for Coaches vs. Cancer. Lange has four sons, and so does Spiker. Lange’s kids are older and have coached Spiker’s kids on camp teams. Dunphy played at La Salle, got a master’s degree at Villanova and also coached at Penn and Temple. He came out of retirement two years ago to coach his alma mater and earned his 600th win a week ago Sunday. In Philadelphia he is introduced simply as “Mr. Big Five.”
Donahue, the coach he beat at the buzzer Saturday, was once his assistant at Penn. They shared a lengthy hug after Brantley’s shot was officially ruled good. “I didn’t know what to say,” Dunphy said. “It’s a great way to win but an awful way to lose.”
When Jay Wright coached Villanova, the Wildcats once won 25 straight Big Five games. Wright has said in the past that among his many accomplishments, including two national titles and four Final Fours, that streak might have been the most satisfying. Now Kyle Neptune, his successor, has to deal with the embarrassment of finishing sixth in the Big Five. Villanova was ranked this past week because it has wins over Maryland, Texas Tech, North Carolina and Memphis. That can’t wipe out the specter of losses to Penn, St. Joseph’s and Drexel.
“We treat all our games the same,” Neptune insisted after Saturday’s loss. “We do the best we can and then move on to getting ready for the next one.”
Neptune knows better than that. He was twice an assistant under Wright at Villanova — including in both national championship seasons — and he knows Big Five games aren’t like other games. They carry a special intensity regardless of where they are played. That was evident again Saturday.
“I like to think that Philadelphia is the best city in the country for college basketball,” Dunphy said. “Today proved it one more time.”
Amen to that. Even if Spiker never changes that shirt.