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McCaffery: The Big 5’s shortest Palestra season as memorable as all the rest

PHILADELPHIA — The affair began at 7:01 and by 9:16, that was it, done for the year. The Palestra portion of the Big 5 season, in its own way as captivating as any in the set-up’s unique history, was over before the middle of November.

The 2023-24 Palestra Big 5 Experience, enjoyed by a capacity crowd of 8,722, lasted all of one game, a stunning 76-72 Penn victory over 21st-ranked Villanova. At its core, it was what was always known as a “typical Big 5 game” in that it was particularly intense, predictably competitive and decided largely on hustle plays.

It another way, given the 21st Century history of the informal conference, it was not typical at all. That is, the one Power 6 program in the league lost. And when it did, red and blue streamers cascaded from the stands, a couple of thousand students stormed the court, the band played, the cheerleaders sang and the Big 5 never seemed more alive.

Traditionalists who remember what the Big 5 was when it was at its peak – when five programs played virtually every home game in the Palestra, typically in doubleheader form, with each raking 20 percent of the nightly box office cash – might not have grasped it yet, but that version of the mini-conference has been dead longer than it was ever alive. Formed in 1954, by 1986 it was changed when Rollie Massimono rightly understood that sharing power-conference revenue and court time with higher mid-majors was bad business. At about the same time, Temple president Peter Liacouras pushed Owls games to North Broad Street. And that was it, a 32-year run … 37 years ago.

Yet the continuing reason for the Big 5 to exist is fundamentally sound, for when it is done right, it gives sports fans enjoyment. Something wrong with that?

Monday, the evenly split crowd roared from start to finish – first from one side of the court, then from the other, the emotions alternating, the sound increasing with every possession. Behind 22 points from Tyler Perkins and a 38-35 rebounding edge, the Quakers would win despite missing 13 free throws and 10 three pointers. That was largely because their defense – or was it the aura of the building itself? – shoved the Wildcats into 9-for-33 three-point inefficiency.

So credit the conference power-traders for trying different ideas to keep a tradition moving. Over the decades, there have been truncated Big 5 schedules, some throws at random Palestra doubleheaders and more recently an annual round robin with each team playing twice at home. So there was nothing dramatically new about the one-game Palestra season Monday, other than Penn and Saint Joseph’s historically took turns hosting each other in the building, and there were those occasional gimmick doubleheaders.

Last year, La Salle and Temple played before the Penn-Saint Joseph’s game to horrifying attendance, publicity and electricity results. That disaster helped hurry along the new format, which requires an expertise in code-breaking to figure out. After adding Drexel as a full-time member, the league was split into two pods – La Salle, Temple and the Dragons in one, with Penn, Saint Joseph’s and Villanova in the other. Each team will play one home game against a pod opponent and, when that is over, they all will be seeded and sent to the Wells Fargo Center for a Dec. 2 tripleheader.

If the Wells Fargo portion of the experiment works, it will be worthy of a documentary as one of the great upsets in sports history. Who is going to want to hang around a building with a minimum of Big 5 history for nearly eight hours and watch five teams they are not interested in just to enjoy the one team that they are? It is not 1960, where the games are played in an hour and a half and a good doubleheader could be enjoyed between 7 and 11. No, college games in 2023 are vandalized by a TV timeout every four minutes, by lengthy stoppages for replays, and by elaborate, elongated warmup-time routines and obligations. Maybe they can announce a crowd of 17,000 for that, but there is almost certain to be 12,000 empty seats at any particular time. It will hardly be Pandemonium Palace, as the Palestra once was called, and what it was again Monday night.

That game alone proved the league is worth preserving, as there will continue to be Big 5 Players of the Week, All-Big 5 teams, the continuation of the Big 5 Hall of Fame and a chance for Philadelphia sports fans to enjoy the college game at a high level. And since the six teams have to schedule somebody, at least this way they can do so without needing to charter a plane or, in some cases, pay six-figure guarantees. It was kind of the reason – convenience – the thing was invented in the first place.

So that was it Monday, a perfect replica of what the Big 5 once was in the building where it still belongs.

Too bad it had to end so soon.

Contact Jack McCaffery at




Source: Berkshire mont

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