Temple improving, but it doesn't have Villanova's head start

Posted: March 21, 2011

As Temple has enjoyed a basketball revival under coach Fran Dunphy and as Villanova has suffered through a couple of late-season stumbles, it has become a popular parlor game - more popular on North Broad Street than the Main Line - to wonder if the two programs are on an equal footing now, or even if the Owls are poised to become the dominant basketball school in the Philadelphia area.

It is the only conversation worth having regarding the six local Division I programs, since, at the moment, only Villanova and Temple are capable of playing consistently on the national stage. The Wildcats took part in their seventh straight NCAA tournament this year and the Owls went to their fourth straight.

From the narrow focus of wins and losses at the annual postseason crapshoot, you can say that the two schools have played the same number of NCAA tournament games in the last two years. That would be three, with Villanova winning one tournament game last season before being eliminated and the Owls winning one this season. That sounds about even.

Look a little further back and things aren't quite as similar. Temple hadn't won a tournament game since 2001 before beating Penn State on a final shot by Juan Fernandez on Thursday. Villanova, in the five tournaments from 2005 to 2009, advanced to the Sweet 16 twice, the regional final once, and capped that run with a trip to the Final Four.

That success has bought coach Jay Wright the ability to survive some downturns, and it also bought the Villanova program the attention of top prospects and helped provide a funding base to allow serious nationwide recruiting. Temple isn't able to operate on that same plane yet, either in its ability to land the most highly regarded prospects or to operate too far beyond its strength in the Philadelphia market.

"We do a lot of work locally, because it's the base you work from. We can study guys rather than just watch them play," Dunphy said on Friday. "I think it's an honest approach. We have a wonderful university and a spectacular city. . . . We have everything you need. So it will be really good for you to come and take a look at us. I don't know how to do anything different. We've just got good guys who want to work real hard, and we've been very fortunate."

It has been more than just luck, of course. Dunphy is a very good coach, capable of adapting his approach to the players at hand, many of whom are not ready for big-time basketball as they come out of the box.

And that is where the parlor game really comes to a halt, because this isn't a fair comparison. Dunphy would probably trade places with Wright, but Wright would not trade places with Dunphy. That's not to say Dunphy would necessarily prefer the school or the location or the traditions or the uniform colors. But, if the measure is solely getting to the NCAA tournament and winning enough games there to be in the annual national conversation, then he would definitely take the head start that Wright possesses.

"Big picture, I feel very good about our program. I think this is going to make us stronger," Wright said after Villanova finished the season with its sixth straight loss, a come-from-ahead collapse against George Mason in its opening game of the tournament. "I'm glad I'm not a pro coach. I'd probably get fired for this season."

Wright is fortunate, as he readily admits, that Villanova plays in the Big East, one of the premier conferences in the country. The conference is always on national television, which gives its schools a threefold advantage: Recruits can watch their games and project themselves into that spotlight; the tournament selection committee can become more familiar with the teams; and the network contracts provide the funding to make high-pressure, national recruiting possible.

It's not a magic formula, and you can ask the folks at DePaul about that, but it's a nice jump on developing a program that can become a self-perpetuating yearly contender. That's not to say Villanova can't suffer a downturn, and the skids at the end of the last two seasons certainly represent one, but a good coach with a good situation to sell will get his share of success.

Life in the Atlantic Ten is not as easy. Conference games are not easy to find on television, thanks mostly to a disastrously bad decision to partner long-term with CBS College Sports, which is carried almost solely by the Dish and DirecTV satellite networks. It is particularly bad for the three Philadelphia schools that must recruit in a market dominated by Comcast cable. In a given season, a talented high school player in the area will see a lot more of Gonzaga than it will Temple, St. Joseph's, or La Salle.

Atlantic Ten schools and the conference administrators bristle when the league is referred to as a "mid-major," and that might be too harsh for a conference that placed three teams in the NCAA tournament this season. So if there is a proper term for a good conference that is a step below the powerhouses and a step above the true mid-majors - Mid-powers? Sergeant-majors? - that is where the Atlantic Ten should fall.

The lower-rung perception is hard to fight, however, and it doesn't help that commissioner Bernadette McGlade chose to move the conference headquarters to Newport News, Va., which is decidedly mid-something. Toss in a few other comparisons between the Atlantic Ten and the Big East, like a conference tournament in crumbling Boardwalk Hall as opposed to one in Madison Square Garden, and ask yourself where the best players will usually go.

It's not a fair fight - this stacking up of Villanova and Temple over the long term - although Dunphy's program can hold its own with anyone's, and he should almost always be awarded points just for degree of difficulty. But two seasons is not a trend. Four or five seasons is a trend.

Temple is going the right way at the moment, and Villanova seems to be going the wrong way. But the ways they travel are too different to compare, and the road that leads to next season and beyond is a lot smoother for one than the other.

Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842

or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/bob_fords_post_patterns/

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