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by Hadyen Downer (8th)

The idea of cross-town rivalries is nothing new to college basketball. There are plenty of famous feuds between local colleges in America; USC vs UCLA, Houston vs Rice, TCU vs SMU, Boston College vs Boston University, and many more. But the Philadelphia Big 5 is different. It isn’t just a couple of basketball teams that don’t like each other. It’s the millions of people in the Philadelphia area who support their team in the fight to be the best team in the city.

It’s funny, actually, how the Big 5 pits people against each other. The idea of sports in Philadelphia is almost always unanimous. Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, Flyers. And that’s what makes the Big 5 so special. It’s the only sort of thing like itself within a 4 hour radius. 

Some of you may be asking, “what is the Big 5?”. To understand that, we need to take a trip back in time to 1955. College basketball was really starting to catch on with the public in the early 50’s. The five best teams in the Philadelphia area at the time were La Salle, who were coming off a national championship in 1954, Villanova, Saint Joseph’s, Penn, and Temple. The athletics departments of the schools came together in unison to create a tournament aptly named “The Big 5” to showcase talent and help upkeep The Palestra, Penn’s famous basketball arena. The rivalries between the colleges were already heated before the tournament was created, and the new round-robin series just added fuel to the fire. The tournament was a huge hit with students and the general public alike, and the colleges earned major revenue from it. Saint Joseph’s would take home the maiden voyage of the competition, and it was history after that. The tournament became a part of Philadelphia sports culture instantly. Many years later, in 1991, the tournament was briefly discontinued, before coming back eight years later in 1999. Villanova has won the most championships currently with 29, with Temple hot on their tail at 28, Saint Joseph’s in pursuit with 21, and Penn and La Salle lagging farther behind.

Recently, the Big 5 has been experiencing a “renaissance” of sorts. After a drop-off in attendance following the COVID-19 pandemic, the executives of the athletic departments were figuring out a way to increase revenue. After much deliberation, they settled on a new plan: three team groups would all play each other once. Once they finish group play, the teams will be seeded and play for their position in the tournament. After the group stage, a tripleheader will be played at the Wells Fargo Center to determine the winner. But for this format to work, the “Big 5” would need a sixth member. In steps Drexel University, the underdog program based in West Philadelphia. With the addition of the Dragons, everything was set for an incredible weekend in South Philly.

This year was the inaugural season of this new format; Saint Joseph’s and Temple surprisingly topped their groups, with favorites Villanova and Penn finishing outside the top spot in their groups. 

Villanova were definitely the disappointment of this year’s edition - the previously ranked Wildcats fell to both Penn and Saint Joseph’s in the group stage and were shocked by Drexel in the fifth place game, 59-57. Speaking of Drexel, that well-earned victory over Villanova was their first win in the history of the tournament, as they had lost two tightly contested games to Temple and La Salle in the group stage. In the fourth place game, between La Salle and Penn, bedlam ensued as La Salle guard Khalil Henry hit a game winning shot from half-court to down the Quakers in overtime, 93-92. But for all the marbles, in the championship game, it would be the Hawks flying over the Owls as Saint Joseph’s beat Temple 74-65. Hawks forward Rasheer Fleming dropped a calm 22 points to lead Joes to their 21st Big 5 title. 

Overall, the event was a huge success for the teams, and on the corporate level, where ticket sales were far up from last year in group play, along with the sales from the tripleheader.

Some basketball purists may wince at the idea of a tradition like the Big 5 being taken away. But something had to be done. Sometimes, to keep a tradition going, you have to take a tradition away. This new format, coined, “The City 6” is the future of Philadelphia basketball as we know it. Whether you’re a Hawk, Wildcat, Dragon, Owl, Explorer, or Quaker, it’s clear that this tournament is a great step ahead for the state of each program.

Image Citation:

"Philly Big 5." 2023.