A possible NCAA match made in Big Five heaven

Posted: March 18, 2014

Nothing against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers, who earned their place in the NCAA tournament just like the others and were rewarded with an opening game against Villanova on Thursday, but there isn't a sports fan in Philadelphia not thinking ahead, even just a little bit, to the possibility of what might come after that.

The NCAA bracket always delivers the chance for some delicious matchups, some rivalry within the raucousness, and that is just what might be awaiting both Villanova and St. Joseph's in Buffalo over the weekend.

Getting to that line of the bracket looks easier for the Wildcats than the Hawks. Villanova has to get past 15th-seeded Milwaukee while St. Joe's will be the guys wearing the dark shirts of the underdog in its game against Connecticut on Thursday. But the Hawks weren't supposed to win the Atlantic 10 Conference championship, either, and were hanging by a tenuous talon to a tournament bid before their boogaloo in Brooklyn. So, stranger things have happened and it always seems the NCAA committee likes to create the possibility of this sort of showdown.

"I swear. I really think there are so many connections in college basketball, that it's random," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "It is funny. When you talk to the guys who played here in the '60s, St. Joe's and Villanova used to meet all the time on their way to a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. So, it's kind of like old times all over again."

If it happens. If Villanova, the No. 2 seed in the East and the overall No. 5 seed in the 68-team tournament, doesn't stumble and fall against Milwaukee, a surprise addition from the Horizon League. If St. Joseph's can upset a Connecticut team that will be a slight favorite. If all of that happens, then Buffalo gets a lot more interesting than usual, which isn't saying much.

As is usually the case, the backdrop of a Villanova-St. Joe's game would be their typical Upstairs/Downstairs relationship. The difference between City Line and the Main Line is sometimes overstated, but this basketball season the fortunes of the two teams have followed the script, with Villanova the favored kid from the right side of the tracks who coasted along and St. Joe's the underdog who had to scuffle back into the picture.

"I'll call Jay Wright," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said when the bracket showed both schools heading to the same place. "I'm sure they're flying whatever the biggest plane is . . . a 797. Maybe we can sit in the back."

He's a trip," Wright said, when the Associated Press relayed that barb. "It's all good. Tell him we'll take him. It's all about Philly."

It won't be all about Philly if the two teams meet up, however. It will be all about history and bad blood and the kind of determination that only brothers can muster against each other during an intense competition.

The Wildcats dismissed the Hawks easily earlier this season, winning in Hagan Arena by 30 points in early December. The loss for St. Joe's, which came only four days after a similarly deflating loss to Temple, left the Hawks at 4-4 on the season. It would have been difficult to predict then, but Martelli's team was about to unfurl its most consistent stretch of play in several years.

St. Joe's won 17 of its next 20 before closing out the regular season with losses to George Washington and La Salle. If that rekindled the skepticism about the Hawks, it didn't last long. They beat Dayton, St. Bonaventure, and VCU to claim their first A-10 championship since 1997, earn a 10th seed in the NCAA tournament, and put themselves on a possible collision course with Villanova.

The Wildcats did their part to make it possible, too, although not by choice. If Villanova hadn't come out flat in its Big East tournament opener against Seton Hall, the Wildcats would have held onto a top seed and, if the pairings were the same, would have opened against Coastal Carolina and then faced either Colorado or Pitt. Instead, their loss to Seton Hall dropped them a line and into the path of what might be.

Oh, sure. It's all looking too far ahead. Calm down about it. The anticipation is the fun of it. Is there anything to anticipate about Villanova's playing Milwaukee, a team that lost at home three weeks ago by 22 points to Illlinois-Chicago, which is ranked 314th in national RPI? If the Wildcats lose that game, they deserve whatever people say about them.

As for the Hawks, it's a tougher go. Connecticut has beaten three Top 20 teams in the last three weeks and their two losses during that span were both to Louisville, which might be the hottest team in the country.

Still, the opportunity is there for St. Joseph's and what better added motivation than the opportunity, just over the horizon of that opening game, to add a bit of history to the affair.

Plus, the 797 isn't leaving Buffalo until Sunday, and it would be a shame if the Hawks had to walk back.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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