Big 5 hoops gives fans reason to hope

Posted: February 21, 2013

THE BEAUTY of college basketball in Philadelphia lies in its ability to make relevant even the worst of times.

Even when the moneybags baseball team misses the playoffs, when the Gold Standard football team is the worst in the league, when the NBA and NHL teams get unlocked-out but remain irrelevant, at least one of the City Six offers drama.

In this case, two.

La Salle visits Temple on Thursday night, a game between bubble teams that could end NCAA Tournament aspirations for the loser. It would move La Salle a step closer to its first NCAA berth since 1992, when current backcourt starters Tyreek Duren and Ramon Galloway each were 1-year-old.

Villanova is anything but a lock for the Madness, and the rest of the half-dozen eliminated themselves weeks ago. But Villanova is the rich uncle, the program for which an NCAA berth is an entitlement to be squandered, not a jewel to be treasured.

Before the Atlantic 10 crept closer to the stratosphere of the Big conferences - East, 10, 12 - Temple enjoyed such an entitlement. No more; the Owls have relished each of their last five consecutive NCAA spots.

It isn't just NCAA merit at stake. A La Salle win means its first outright Big 5 title since 1990, when it also went 4-0. Temple, 2-1 in the Big 5, can win a share.

At 7 p.m. Thursday in the Liacouras Center, in a year of athletic disappointments, college basketball matters. It is a moment unique to Philadelphia.

"There's nothing else like it," said La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini, a Chicago transplant. "We set the bar high for each other. Thirteen of the last 13 years, the Big 5 champion has been an NCAA Tournament team. If you can win in Philadelphia, you can win anywhere."

This matchup is made richer for the narratives that brought the teams to this point.

La Salle's consecutive wins over top-20 teams Butler and VCU in late January put them at 14-5 and awoke the nation. La Salle's subsequent home loss to Massachusetts undressed its shortcomings.

"There was a lot of pressure on us after those wins. People were, like, 'Were those just fluke wins?' " said Duren, the point guard. "And then we went out and dropped an egg against UMass. We'd probably be ranked right now if we hadn't lost that game."

They have since won four in a row. Four more games remain after this one.

A nine-game winning streak entering Atlantic 10 Tournament play would give them 23 wins and probably punch their ticket. A loss to unranked Temple and that ticket goes away.

This conversation does not take place if the Explorers had another bad loss. That nearly happened.

On Feb. 13, the Explorers, depleted and desperate, beat St. Bonaventure in overtime on the road. The Bonnies might be sub-.500, but they typify the parity and quality of the league, having won the A-10 tournament last season.

Galloway, La Salle's leading scorer, and forward Jerrell Wright were fighting injuries. Worse, Duren was debilitated with the flu.

"It's one of the best wins I've ever had," said Giannini, in his ninth season at La Salle. "I will look back on that win as a win that may have gotten us to the postseason, if we are so fortunate. The only reason for us to win that game was the strength of our will; against a good opponent, in a hostile environment."

They endured a similar environment and a terrifying test during the win at VCU against its "Havoc" pressure defense. VCU sprinted to a 17-0 run to start the second half, but La Salle did not wilt. It went on a 22-7 run, regained the lead and cruised in.

"That was a defining moment," Duren said. "A lot of teams wouldn't have bounced back from that."

"Not many teams could do that," Giannini said. "One of the reasons we're considered a potential NCAA team is the impressiveness of winning there."

Winning at Temple, with the Owls' sixth straight NCAA berth at stake, might be just as impressive.

But not as impressive as Temple's biggest win: a holiday tournament win over No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden - effectively a home game for SU.

It helped erase the pain of a home loss 3 days prior to Canisius, an early-season "comeuppance," said Temple coach Fran Dunphy. That loss devalued the Owls' 8-1 start, which included a win at Villanova.

Recent home losses to Saint Joseph's and Duquesne (part of an unprecedented string of one-point decisions) have left Temple at 17-8 and, at best, an uncertain entity; able to beat Syracuse and play with Kansas, but equally likely to hibernate against lesser teams.

"The home loss to Duquesne was a big loss for us," said Khalif Wyatt, the team's leading scorer, who has scored 25 points or more eight times this season, going over 30 in four of those games. "That makes [Thursday's] game huge for us."

"We're good. Not great," said Dunphy, who happened to play at La Salle. "This is an interesting group. We've been in every game. That's the nature of this group. There's some inconsistency in it, but there's some 'never-say-die' in it."

In that, the teams are similar.

They are dissimilar in most other aspects.

A selfless, long-range team, LaSalle has made 48 of 99 three-pointers during its four-game winning streak. Active on the perimeter, the Explorers lead the conference in three-point defense, at 30.4 percent.

And there is this: Temple has been to the NCAA Tournament 14 times since La Salle last made an appearance. Expect La Salle's "Entourage," as its fans are known, to make the 5-mile trip south on Broad Street to witness what might be the program's next step back to greatness.

"As coaches and players, we live in the present," Giannini insisted, then allowed: "It might be bigger for some of the longtime supporters who have loved La Salle and supported us through thick and thin."

Lately, in this town, there has been plenty of "thin" to go around.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

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