Is the Big 5 dead?

Former Saint Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli says no, it’s just different
The Pennsylvania Quakers warm up opposite the Yale Bulldogs before the game at The Palestra on March 8, 2019, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Penn won 77-66.
The Pennsylvania Quakers warm up opposite the Yale Bulldogs before the game at The Palestra on March 8, 2019, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Penn won 77-66. Photo credit Corey Perrine/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — For the first time in more than four decades, Philadelphia will not have any representatives in the most prestigious men’s college hoops tournament.

Yes, Penn State made it. Yes, Princeton made it. But Philly-area teams — Villanova, Temple, Saint Joseph’s, La Salle, Penn and Drexel — were shut out of the field of 68 on a down year for these programs.

This year is the first that no Philadelphia City 6 team made the NCAA Tournament since 1977.

Maybe it could simply be said that it’s a down year for the Big 5 in general. Though in fairness, it’s mostly a down year for Villanova, who had to deal with missing Justin Moore for most of the season because of an injury, as well as transitioning to a new era after Kyle Neptune replaced Jay Wright.

“It was always going to be a transition year,” said Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia.

Rendell, a Big 5 fan and Penn alum, said Wright has done an outstanding job during his time on the Main Line — two national championships and four Final Fours.

“It’s a transition year, and every league has them,” he said. “In fact, Villanova will be stronger next year.”

But it’s not just whether these teams make or miss the tournament. The attendance for Big 5 games isn’t what it used to be.

On Nov. 30, 2022, a Big 5 doubleheader at the Palestra did not draw much of a crowd. About a week later, at what was essentially the Big 5 title game between Temple and Penn at the Palestra, the stands were less than half full — on a Saturday afternoon, no less, according to ESPN.

Former Saint Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli, who is currently the associate head coach at Michigan, has been watching from afar, somewhat. He coached his 2004 team to an Elite 8 appearance with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West.

Now, Martelli wonders how these schools are dealing with “the wild, wild west transfer portal” and the NIL — name, image and likeness — opportunities for college athletes to make money, something that is rather new in this level of amateur athletics.

“We’re in a new time,” he said, “and hopefully this is abnormal that there are no city schools in the NCAA Tournament. But the new normal of NCAA basketball is just different, and all of our schools in Philadelphia are going to have to adjust and adapt.”

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Martelli said garnering attendance in the stands a challenge and effort that falls on everyone.

“From the president’s office to the athletic director’s office to the coaching staffs to all those loyal — and hopefully they’re not dormant — alums and fans,” he said, “everybody has to take on the challenge and bring out the suggestions. Philadelphia basketball, college basketball is envied across this country, and we cannot let that slip away.”

So, is the Big 5 dead?

Martelli paused. “As we’ve known it, and I’m talking about those that are in my age group … that’s not coming back.”

While those eras of yesteryear are gone, Martelli said Big 5 hoops is not dead.

“We in college basketball have to cut out our niche,” he said. “It’s not dead, it’s just different, and different isn’t bad. It’s not good. It’s just different. And again, the powers that be need to sit at the table and say, let’s try this. And then put everything they have, every emotion and every ounce of energy behind that, because it’s just too special. Philadelphia basketball is just too special.”

Bob Vetrone Jr. was a scoreboard editor at The Philadelphia Daily News for 35 years. If you have listened to sports talk radio in this town, you may have heard “Boop,” as many like to call him, make guest appearances on the radio with his Boop Stats.

Pointing to the national landscape, Vetrone Jr. said many would be surprised how many times over the years only one team from the City 6 has made it — usually an exceptional team.

“If Jay Wright had not gotten Villanova onto such a great, great run, we might have been looking at a day like this more than a few times in the last two decades,” he noted.

He also believes some of the teams — like Temple in the American Athletic Conference and La Salle in the Atlantic 10 conference — aren’t in the right leagues to give themselves the best chances to succeed.

Of course, Philadelphia didn’t get completely shut out this year. Villanova women’s basketball is a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament, set to host 13-seed Cleveland State on Saturday. And, the Villanova men’s team accepted an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament.

According to The Athletic’s Dana O’Neil, Big 5 basketball will have a new format next season with all six area schools. Time will tell if that works.

“To be philosophical for a second, I hope that everybody appreciates the good times,” Martelli said last week before Temple and Penn lost in their conference tournaments.

“Not having anybody in the tournament obviously would be tough for the passionate fan bases and for Philadelphia basketball, but I hope it makes people reflect on how hard it is to make that tournament, and how rewarding and gratifying it is when your school is representing across the nation all that your school stands for and the city of Philadelphia stands for.”

Featured Image Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images