Anything can happen in Saint Joseph's-Villanova series

Posted: December 03, 2010

IT IS THE one game that defines Philadelphia basketball. You don't have to explain it. You can't really. You just have to say it - Saint Joseph's-Villanova.

They play tonight at Villanova. It will not make or break anybody's season, not on the first Friday of December. It will, however, create one more memory.

Villanova is ranked 12th, has been a national player for seven consecutive seasons, has proven talent all over the roster. After an eight-season run that began in 2000-01 and included 180 wins, St. Joe's fell back hard last season and is starting over with the youngest team in the modern history of the program.

"Since our performance [in the NIT Season Tip-Off final loss to Tennessee], I've been concentrating on us," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "What is scary is that they have a lot of talented young guys that can have games like Rutgers when they are really good. We've gone through this. And, they can have games when they can be real inconsistent because they're young. We just don't want to catch them on a night when they're really good. St. Joe's-Villanova is usually one of those nights."

Hawks coach Phil Martelli will not have a lot of time to think about the game. St. Joe's played at Drexel Wednesday night (62-50 loss). And he won't have much time to think when it's over. The Hawks play at Princeton on Sunday.

Who made this schedule?

"I just talked to master of scheduling, Jim Boeheim," Martelli said. "He asked me what exactly I was thinking."

It wasn't supposed to work out exactly this way, but when ESPN said this was the date it could telecast the game, it was done. And it will be on ESPNU (8:45 p.m.).

Schedule aside, Martelli knows these Villanova players well. This time, however, it will look a bit different.

"The change really is this guy inside [Mouphtaou Yarou] is a body, clearly different," Martelli said. "But the engine is run by [Maalik] Wayns and [Corey] Fisher. It does cause you to pause after so long and now saying 'Where's Scottie Reynolds in this?' Because he was around forever and such a wonderful player."

The Wildcats did not play well against Tennessee, but no conclusions should be drawn at this stage.

"We ran into a really good defensive team," Wright said. "And we had kind of had an easy time scoring. We just tried to challenge them and tried to be macho. We learned a good lesson . . . The thing I like about our guards is they want to challenge everybody. They want to challenge me. I like that, but you also have to have some intelligence about it."

Villanova is a strong favorite. The Wildcats should win it. In fact, it has been a while since there has been an upset in the series. The Hawks did have their chances at upsets the last two seasons. And the young Wildcats played a terrific game against St. Joe's great 2003-04 team. But the favorite keeps winning, at least lately.

The coaches grew up around here. So they know the history and take nothing for granted.

"The first St. Joe-Villanova game I ever went to at the Palestra, St. Joe's shaved their heads," Wright said. "I had never seen that before. It blew my mind. I thought it was the coolest thing I ever saw."

A few years later, as a senior at Council Rock High, Wright tried to persuade his teammates to shave their heads before their big game against Pennsbury.

"No one would do it," Wright said. "I wanted to do it."

Martelli just thinks of the noise at these games.

"To me, it's always been the noise," Martelli said. "The game that kind of jumps out at me was 2005 at the Palestra."

It was a throwback game, in that the house was split evenly. In the first half, all the noise came from the St. Joe's side. In the second half, all the noise came from the Villanova side.

"We couldn't have been any more perfect in the first half," Martelli said. "I'm sure we had a double-digit lead at halftime. It was our ball coming out to start the second half. If I remember correctly, Kyle Lowry went and took the ball from our guy and went in and laid it in. I went, 'I guess we got their attention.' "

A Villanova team that would lose to eventual national champion North Carolina in the Sweet 16 won it, 67-52. The Hawks won the Atlantic 10 regular season and lost in the NIT championship game.

Ask any coach, and he will tell you the sting of the losses lingers much longer than any euphoria from wins. Wright will never forget the 2003 game at the Palestra.

Villanova had beaten St. Joe's five consecutive times and embarrassed them the season before, 102-73.

The Hawks played brilliantly that night and led 40-9. The same Villanova players that would be stars on that Sweet 16 team and Final Eight team were freshmen.

"That was just a nightmare," Wright said. "They were so good. That place was so packed. I don't think there's been a game since we've been here that you just felt so helpless. They were good. We were young. That place was electric. You can't forget that one."

But by the next season, when the Hawks were even better on the way to an unbeaten regular season, the about-to-grow-up Wildcats got way down early at home and then made a strong run. St. Joe's was better and was never going to give up the lead, but it might have been the game that foretold where Villanova was about to go.

"Even though we lost, that was very cool," Wright said. "We were just starting to get good. They were a great team, and we felt like we really battled them."

They did. St. Joe's eventually won, 74-67.

"Everything with that '03-04 team, going out there, a basketball exhibition, if you know what I mean," Martelli said. "Like one of those nights, and we've certainly been on the other side more than enough, where we could have played 100 minutes and we were going to win that game."

Wright described that St. Joe's team as "a machine."

The series is so fascinating because of the players, coaches and the games, blowouts, nail-biters, even, back in the day, upsets.

Now, there is this game.

"Maybe the day in between is going to lead to the players not being overhyped, if that makes sense," Martelli said. "We're obviously an underdog, but for these young kids to have an experience against a nationally ranked team, a true road game . . . "

With that, Villanova-St. Joe's - again. *

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