Wednesday, November 25, 2009

#4 Wildcats Tangle with La Salle for 59th Time - Preview of the City Series Contest

To the Wildcat faithful-

The fourth-ranked Wildcats (5-0 overall, 1-0 City Series) tangle with ancient rival La Salle (3-1 overall, 0-0 City Series) for the 59th time, on Saturday at the Pavilion..  Tip-off is at 3:30 PM, and the game will be televised by ESPN2.

Villanova has swept all of its City Series opponents in the last two seasons, and can do so again this year.  The Wildcats are 1-0 in City Series play, after crushing Penn less than two weeks ago.  Villanova has also won 19 of its last 20 games in City Series play.

A Year Ago

Last season, on December 14, 2008, #12 Villanova made its first-ever visit to La Salle's newly-renovated Tom Gola Arena.  Despite the hostile environment in the on-campus venue, the Wildcats were able to triumph, 70-59, after jumping out to a 36-26 lead at halftime. The two leading scorers for Villanova are still here - Scottie Reynolds and Corey Stokes.  Reynolds had 13 points on 5-12 shooting, while Stokes scored a game-high 18 points on 6-10 shooting.

There was also an incredible defensive performance from Dante Cunningham - in addition to scoring nine points, the senior forward had, in an interesting bit of statistical symettry, had four defensive rebounds, four steals, and blocked four La Salle shots.  Corey Fisher came off the bench, to deal six assists without a single turnover, and also threw in eight points in 26 minutes.

For La Salle, Kimmani Barrett and Rodney Green both led the way with 16 points each, the only two Explorers in double figures.

La Salle finished the season 18-13 overall, and 9-7 in the Atlantic 10, but did not receive a NIT bid; the fact that the Explorers lost in overtime to St. Louis in the Atlantic 10 tournament's opening round may have affected the NIT's decision.

Villanova / La Salle Series History

Villanova leads, all-time, 32-26; as formal Big Five opponents, the Wildcats lead 30-25. The Wildcats have won the last seven contests, and will try to make it eight in a row against the Explorers on Saturday.  Villanova's seven-game winning streak is the longest either school has ever had, in this ancient rivalry.  The Wildcats have also won 11 of the last 13 contests, going back to 1994.

La Salle's last victory came on November 27, 2001, in Jay Wright's first season at the helm.  The Explorers won, 61-58, in overtime at the Pavilion. 

The respective campuses are separated by less than 14 miles.  But surprisingly, prior to the formation of the Big Five in 1955-56, the two geographically close Catholic colleges had faced each other only three times, in two seasons - 1933-34 and 1934-35.

The Wildcats won the first meeting, at what is now Jake Nevin Fieldhouse, on March 6, 1934, a close 25-23 victory.  There were two games the following year.  The first, at the now-defunct Philadelphia Civic Center (then known as Convention Hall), the Wildcats edged La Salle, 22-21.  A month later, at La Salle, the Explorers won, 29-23.  The series would lay dormant for another generation, however.

The City Series was officially proclaimed in 1955-56.  For 45 seasons, the Blue and White would meet the Blue and Gold every year.  From 1956-1983, every game was at the Palestra on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, the home of Big Five basketball for much of its history.

The series hit its nadir in the 1990s, due to three factors- two from La Salle, and one from Villanova.  La Salle's unfortunate and disastrous decisions to both temporarily join a midwestern conference, and play all of their home games in the cavernous old Spectrum, had devastating effects on the success of its basketball program, from which even now, it has yet to fully recover.

From Villanova's end, the horrendous decision to withdraw from the full round-robin, for the entire decade of the 1990s, meant both the end of cherished traditions and justified animosity from Philadelphia sports fans.  As for Villanova / La Salle - they  were playing only every other year, in the Spectrum, and there was no appropriate atmosphere for this particular Big Five rivalry. 

In the 21st century, the rivalry began to recover, after La Salle had abandoned the Spectrum, and Villanova - to its inestimable credit - decided not only to resume the full round-robin in the City Series, but to agree to some games returning to the Palestra.  Since 2000, all nine Villanova  /  La Salle games have been at the Pavilion, the Palestra, or, for the first tim last season, La Salle's on-campus Tom Gola Arena.

One quirk in the rivalry has been La Salle's remarkable record at the Pavilion, since it opened in 1986.  The Explorers won their first four games in the Pavilion, from 1986-90.  After a decade's absence, the Explorers returned to the Pavilion, and lost, in 2000.  But they won in November 2001, giving them five victories in six appearances, a rare feat for any opponent.  Villanova has won the last two at the Pavilion, in December 2005 and December 2007, but La Salle is still 5-3 in the building,  That mark, as far as I can tell, the best record of any Villanova opponent, Big Five or otherwise, who has played enough games there to be meaningful.

Over the last two decades, Villanova's dominance in the series obscures the fact that the schools, at one time, were both roughly equivalent as basketball powers.  La Salle hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1991, but it was a powerhouse for a long time.  To illustrate - Villanova has won 11 of the last 13 games, but leads the overall series by only six.  La Salle led, all-time, until Villanova's victory in December 2003, at the Palestra.

Go Wildcats!

Happy Thanksgiving...


Anonymous said...

These schools have a fascinating history on the hardwood. I was surprised that the Explorers have a winning record at the Pavilion. I recall LaSalle defeating Villanova in an opening round NIT tournament game in the late '80's.

Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...


I just looked up the game to which you were referring - you're absolutely right.

La Salle defeated Villanova in the opening round of the 1987 NIT , at the then-brand-new Pavilion. On March 12, the Speedy Morris-led Explorers triumphed over the Rollie Massimino-led Wildcats, 86-84.

The legendary Lionel Simmons won the game for La Salle at the buzzer with a driving layup... The Explorers were up by a dozen points w/ 5:37 left, and had to withstand a furious 'Nova rally... It was La Salle's first NIT win since 1952, back in the Tom Gola era...

It was the final game for the 1985 hero Harold Jensen, who matched a career-high with 26 points in his finale. Gary Massey (10 points) and Doug West (16 points) were other Wildcats who reached double figures; Kenny Wilson, Mark Plansky, and Connally Brown also saw action for Villanova...

It meant that Villanova finished with an overall record of 15-16, the first time it had done so since 12 years earlier, when Rollie's second team finished 9-18...

Ironically, as it turned out, the infamous Sports Illustrated interview of Gary McLain about the 1985 tournament two seasons earlier, had appeared during that week...

Also, earlier that season, in La Salle's first visit to the Pavilion - December 9, 1986 - the Explorers also won, 93-86.

I would guess that the 1986-87 Explorers are the only team that ever defeated Villanova at the Pavilion, twice in the same season. Probably, the regular-season and NIT combination is probably the only way an opponent could even play at the Pavilion in the same season, let alone top the Wildcats twice...