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John Chaney and Villanova

September 12, 2003 Columns No Comments

Big mess amidst the Big Five

by Michael Protos

For college basketball fans in Philadelphia, the Big Five round-robin means just as much in pride as it does in the standings.

The Big Five schools – Villanova, Temple, Penn, La Salle and St. Joseph’s – do not earn any national championships nor do they earn an automatic NCAA Tournament bid for claiming the Philadelphia title. But the Big Five games are always intense and often dramatic, as weaker teams frequently defy the odds to upset a cross-town foe.

But a childish scheduling dispute between Villanova and Temple threatens to tarnish the glory of one of the nation’s best local basketball traditions.

Temple Coach John Chaney is typically one of the classiest coaches in the NCAA. He is a superior coach who consistently manages to inspire his young athletes to play at a higher level to compete with the nation’s best programs. Rarely do top recruits opt to spend four years in North Philly to play for Chaney. Nonetheless, his genius has guided Temple to a history of success and nurtured NBA stars like Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie.

To match his coaching prowess, Chaney is the type of man anyone would want as a grandfather. He is 71 years old and full of fire. He always seems to have a gleam in his eye, even while berating a freshman for a careless turnover or, more likely, a seemingly oblivious referee for a questionable call. His friendship with comedian and Temple alumus Bill Cosby typifies Chaney’s ability to deliver light and up-beat banter shortly after a caustic diatribe directed at anyone who incurs his wrath.

If nothing else, Chaney is a passionate coach and a passionate man.

But when Temple plays Villanova this year at the ungodly tip time of 12:01 a.m., eastern standard time, on Friday, Nov. 21, it will mark a rare instance of misdirected passion from Chaney.

Villanova starts this season with several players finishing suspensions in the aftermath of last season’s telephone access number fiasco, which resulted in essentially the entire team receiving suspensions. Because of the suspensions, Villanova was in danger of becoming unable to compete in the Maui Invitation Tournament this season. Villanova needed to devise some creative scheduling to get enough players eligible for the tropical vacation to the Hawaiian island starting Nov. 23. The Wildcats must play two games for enough players to become eligible, but the regular season doesn’t start until Nov. 21.

So Villanova Coach Jay Wright scheduled games that should be easy to win, regardless of who he puts on the court – against Division III schools Claremont and Redlands. Redlands finished 10-15 last season, while Claremont fared better at 15-10, losing to national powerhouses like Vanguard University, Whitworth College and Concordia University.

Sarcasm aside, Wright’s scheduling shenanigans are clearly an attempt to avoid missing out on a pre-season tournament. In doing so, Villanova asked to move its Big Five game against Temple, which had been set for Nov. 21 according to Chaney, to a date in December, during Temple’s winter break. Villanova officials believed the game’s scheduling was tentative from the outset, but Chaney apparently was under a different impression and refused to switch dates.

Chaney’s rhetoric of honoring a schedule clouds the more compelling reason for keeping the Nov. 21 date – Chaney wants Temple’s students to be at school for the game to create a significant home court advantage. Ask any college coach – a deafeningly loud stadium can wreak just as much havoc on opponents as a stifling full-court press.

Throughout this scheduling debate, Chaney has hinted that Villanova is placing a lower priority on the Big Five games in exchange for premium competition. If Chaney is right, and that is not necessarily the case, then Villanova is ignoring one of Philadelphia’s best sporting traditions.

Wright would be making a terrible decision to spurn a Big Five game in favor of a pre-season tournament that only features Central Michigan, Chaminade, Hawaii, Ohio State, Santa Clara, Dayton and San Diego State. Although the mid-major conference representation should create some competitive games, only Ohio State and Dayton offer the marquis match-ups for Villanova that could help build a strong resume for an NCAA Tournament bid.

A game against Temple would qualify as a quality non-conference game while preserving the Philadelphia Big Five tradition. If Wright forfeited an opportunity to participate in that tradition for a relatively weak Maui field, he is belittling the Big Five.

Villanova is not, however, simply spurning Big Five competition. According to reports, Villanova has repeatedly attempted to work with Temple to switch the date since April when it was clear the suspensions would carry over into this season. Penn had backed out of a game against Temple on Dec. 28 because of a prior commitment, and Villanova offered to play Temple on that date. Chaney seems upset that he was not included in the discussions between the initial Nov. 21 plan and Villanova’s decision to play the two California cupcake opponents.

Chaney should respect Villanova’s suspension situation. If Temple steamrolls Villanova Nov. 21, then Villanova, and more importantly, NCAA Tournament committee members, can attribute the result to the undermanned squad Chaney forced Villanova to use. Chaney may gain an advantage in the Big Five standings, but his team will not gain anything in the long run.

Chaney should allow Villanova to come to Temple’s court in December during the school’s winter break. A talented and intact Villanova squad would make a formidable opponent for Chaney and the Owls. Now that game would match the competitive spirit of Big Five basketball.


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