Sizing up the local teams' shot at the Big Dance

Ramon Galloway, shown at left with teammate Sam Mills, is one of La Salle's leaders this season.YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Ramon Galloway, shown at left with teammate Sam Mills, is one of La Salle's leaders this season.YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: March 10, 2013

For college basketball fans, this is a great time of year. As the season winds down and the conference tournaments near, it's great fun to speculate about "who's in and who's out" of the NCAA Tournament.

Many schools have no realistic chance of winning it all. Just making the tournament and stealing a game or two is the whole goal of their season.

Here in Philadelphia, we have a rich tradition regarding the NCAA Tournament.

Every team in the Big 5 has not only been in the tournament many times, but each has advanced to the hallowed "Final Four."

La Salle won it all in the 1954-55 season and then lost in the final to the great Bill Russell-led San Francisco team the following year.

And of course, the Villanova Wildcats became NCAA champions in 1985 with their startling 66-64 upset of the top-ranked, Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas.

The La Salle, Saint Joseph's and Temple teams that made it to the Final Four were talented and performed well. But Villanova's 1985 championship was perhaps the most startling run of all, because the 'Cats had lost 10 games during the regular season and struggled through their first three games in the tournament beating Dayton, Michigan and Maryland all by no more than four points each. No one gave them a chance, and they performed at an incredibly high level in the championship game, making nearly 79 percent of their shots from the floor.

For my Penn Quakers, the NCAA Tournament experience revolves around 2 years. In 1971, the Quakers were 28-0 and ranked second in the country, only to be upset by Villanova in the regional final by the incredible score of 90-47. The great irony of this was that I truly believed Penn was the best team in the country that year. The Quakers had pounded Villanova three straight times and would have beaten a relatively weak Western Kentucky team. The Wildcats went on to lose a close game to UCLA in the finals, but I believe that Penn would have defeated the Bruins that year to become the national champions. Penn was a deeper and more talented team. That year was a heartbreaker for Quakers fans, and the pain still lingers.

However, 8 years later, a gallant, undersized Penn team came close to wiping away that lost opportunity by stunning the country and winning four games to reach the Final Four. The Quakers were unranked going into the tournament, but marched through the dance, beating Iona (with Jeff Ruland), second-ranked North Carolina, 10th-ranked Syracuse and St. John's to reach the Final Four.

In the national semifinal, Cinderella lost her slipper, and Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans crushed the Quakers, 101-67.

So that brings us to this year and "who's in, who's out." Unfortunately, with no shot at an Ivy League title, the Penn Quakers are definitely out. The Drexel Dragons are still alive, but are on life support. I hope the Selection Committee decides to make it up to the Dragons for snubbing them last year, but I doubt it. In fact, if the Dragons make it to the Big Dance, you can tell Drexel president John Fry that I will lead a pep rally on campus in a dragon suit.

The St. Joe's Hawks are also in trouble with a 17-11 record and an eighth-place rank in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Hawks' talent should have resulted in a better record and a surefire ticket to the Dance. They have underachieved all season and have some very bad losses (Fairfield, St. Bonaventure, Creighton by 30 points), and only two real quality wins, over Notre Dame and Temple. The only way the Hawks will make it into the madness is by winning the A-10 Tournament, which they are talented enough to do. They do seem to be on a bit of a roll of late, having crushed Fordham, 82-56, and Rhode Island, 81-44, in their last two games. Stranger things have happened.

The Villanova Wildcats are in. You can't beat three top-5 teams in a season and not get in to the NCAA Tournament. The 'Cats beat the fifth-ranked Louisville Cardinals, 73-54, and 4 days later stunned third-ranked Syracuse, 75-71, in OT. And this past Wednesday, they did it again, beating the fifth-ranked Georgetown Hoyas, 67-57. Their overall record of 19-12 is not great, but no team is kept out with such quality wins.

Both the Temple Owls and the La Salle Explorers are on the bubble, but deserve to be in. The talented Owls are 22-8 and have excellent wins over La Salle, Saint Louis, Syracuse (ranked third at the time) and Villanova, and they nearly beat the Jayhawks in Kansas. They have a big game Sunday against 21st-ranked Virginia Commonwealth, but it appears to me that the Owls must win at least two games in the A-10 Tournament to be certain that they are in. If they do get in, the Owls could cause some real damage. Khalif Wyatt is an A-list scorer, and the Owls have eight quality players whom Fran Dunphy does a great job with, rotating in and out of the lineup.

La Salle definitely deserves to be in. The Explorers are 21-7 and third in the A-10. They have quality wins over Villanova, Butler, VCU and St. Joe's. They have a key game Saturday against Saint Louis, and a win here would absolutely get them in. The Explorers are extremely talented - Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland are quick and talented scorers. Their one weakness is a lack of depth, as they go only six deep, and center Steve Zack is injured.

So what's my prediction? Three teams in the tournament - 'Nova, Temple and La Salle, with St. Joe's getting into the NIT (where the Hawks have a great track record). All three of the NCAA-bound teams can win at least a couple of games if they get on a roll. But what makes the tournament so much fun is that any one of them could catch lightning in a bottle and make a historic run a la the Wildcats of 1985.

Let the Madness begin.


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