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What To Do With The Big 5?

On the brink of ANOTHER Big 5 sweep, fans are wondering if these games are hurting Villanova.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at St. Joseph Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday night, I was getting shushed by my wife because I was practically yelling into my phone and was in danger of waking up our daughter. On the other end of that phone call, and I can only assume several Hard Mike’s Lemonades deep, was my good friend and VUHoops favorite, NovaRaptor. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, I highly suggest you check out his thoughts on how to student section, some alternative Villanova jerseys, and the topic of that night’s conversation: What to do with the Big 5? That’s right, he had the Big 5 tournament idea way before it was cool.

We went over a bunch of the options you hear from Villanova fans these days about how to approach the Big 5. Should we only play a game or two each year? Should we try to set up a tournament? Should we just drop it all together so that we can play better teams? There are a lot of options, but for me I like playing all four Big 5 games, and I’d never change it. NovaRaptor, as a good number of fans I’ve discussed this with lately, less than politely disagreed with my point.

Around the time he started threatening to post to the site how I know nothing about college basketball and that no one should listen to me ever (like I said, VERY good friends), I figured it was time to really dive into all of this and dig up some stats and figures to see in reality what our options were. So if you’ve been waiting for a piece like this, be sure to thank NovaRaptor and please encourage him to get back to writing soon!

The “They’re Not Good Enough” Argument

Let’s face it, the whole reason that this is even a topic for discussion right now is that Villanova is on the verge of sweeping their fifth consecutive Big 5 Title and earning their 22nd consecutive Big 5 win. Both streaks are unprecedented in the historic Philadelphia basketball community, and it has people questioning if Villanova should continue to play against teams that drag down the SOS and don’t challenge the team enough.

I can’t begin to explain all the ways this is the stupidest argument ever, but I’ll go with my favorites. First and foremost, sorry that we’re winning too much for your liking, especially over our rivals. Should Villanova leave the Big East if we win that again too? How the hell is Kansas still in the Big XII? They should have left twice by now!

I get that isn’t the real argument, but I couldn’t help myself. Villanova could win the Big East 20 times in a row (yes please!) and they wouldn’t leave because it provides a high level of competition and quality wins for their tournament resume. The argument is that the same can’t be said for the Big 5.

The problem with cutting Big 5 games because they “aren’t good enough” is that it’s extremely short-sighted. It makes the classic recency bias mistake of assuming things will always be the way they are now, and that’s just stupid. But, I’ll humor the nay-sayers and take a look at how these teams have performed since Jay Wright came to town. Here’s the RPI numbers (used by the NCAA selection committee) since the 2001 season:

Big 5 RPI since 2001
Brendan Reilly

A few things jump out at me from this chart. First off, 2017 was clearly a low point for the Big 5. It’s the first year since Wright has been at Villanova that the four other schools all finished outside the RPI Top 100. That hasn’t been the norm, as the Big 5 has had at least two Top 50 teams in 8 of the previous 9 seasons. In fact, the only season they didn’t have two teams in the Top 50 over that span was 2012, the year Villanova finished last among all Big 5 teams. Even in Villanova’s recent run of dominance, at least one other Big 5 team has been a legit challenger for the crown. This year, Temple will fill that role once again.

But my main takeaway from that graphic is that it’s rare to have a school that can have the kind of consistency Villanova’s been able to achieve. The individual schools of the Big 5 have been erratic in their level of competition, but the Big 5 as a whole has consistently been able to provide Villanova with quality games both home and away.

With the recent changes in the NCAA seeding evaluation, the quality road games the Big 5 provides now have an increased value to Nova’s SOS. A perfect example is this year’s win at St. Joseph’s. They may be having a down season, but because it was a true away game, that currently ranks as one of Nova’s best wins of the season.

The “Risk vs Reward” Argument

This weekend’s La Salle game brought up another argument that I hate, but at least this one’s a fair. Anytime a highly ranked program (let’s say RPI Top 25) plays a “cupcake” school (let’s say anyone outside the RPI Top 150) that isn’t a part of your conference schedule, there’s usually not that much risk of losing the game. However, if the team does lose that game, it can become an anchor that pulls your team down come tournament time. Even with a win, the game usually doesn’t do much for your overall SOS. The argument is that playing fewer “cupcakes” and scheduling teams that are on the same level provides the opportunity for better wins and less damaging losses.

Again, there are a lot of flaws with this argument, but lets start with the one I think people overlook the most: scheduling is HARD to get right. First off, it’s all done at least 6 months if not more in advance, so you don’t really know how good the opponent will be when you play them. Second, most teams that consistently rank in the Top 50 aren’t going to just schedule a one off game. More often than not, it’s a home and home series, which means you really don’t know what the school will look like two or three years in the future. Villanova is currently facing a situation where they’re locked into a series with a UConn team that doesn’t look like they’ll be getting better anytime soon.

Even if you are able to schedule a number of high quality opponents, the results can be just as bad. Look at Michigan State from last season. They were supposed to have a great team that season, and so Izzo scheduled four Top 25 teams in the month of November. But even with their experience and talent, the team hadn’t “gelled” yet, and the result was they lost all four games. The team never recovered, and went from being considered a possible Elite 8 team to limping into the tournament as a 9 seed that didn’t make it out of the first weekend. The lesson, be careful what you wish for when you want to scrap all these “cupcake” games.

But my real problem isn’t that people want to mitigate the “risk” of playing in the Big 5, it’s that they overlook the reward. It’s not just a “W” that Jay Wright and other coaches are looking to get from these games, it’s a better feeling for their teams. Wright knows the types of games he’s going to get from the Big 5, and he uses that to understand how his team is playing together and what they need to work on.

Even on a team as good as this one, arguably only Donte DiVincenzo is playing in the same role he did a year ago. Brunson, Booth, and Bridges are now also captains and leaders. Paschall doesn’t have to play “center” all the time like he did last season. And of course the four freshmen are all getting their first taste of the college game.

When you’re scheduling different teams every year, it takes more time and effort to game plan for them. By keeping these four non-conference games consistent every year, the coaching staff has more time to spend on their own players, rather than the opponent. I would argue that playing in the Big 5 is one of the reasons Wright has been able to get his teams playing at a high level early on in the season, which is also the reason they’re 60-3 in November and December over the past five seasons.

And if all that doesn’t convince you, I have two final points. First, these schedules haven’t exactly hurt Villanova during their run of Big 5 dominance. Every year that they’ve swept the city series in this run, they’ve earned a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. And second, Jay Wright loves the Big 5 games. Anything that makes Wright happy, makes me happy.

Reinvigorating The Big 5

For all my arguing that we shouldn’t get rid of the Big 5 games, I have to admit there’s certainly something missing from them these days. There was an excitement and an intensity that has seemed to have slowly left these contests, especially with the dominance Villanova has displayed recently.

An idea that’s been gaining momentum lately is the “Big 5 Tournament” (again, NovaRaptor had it first) where the teams would play a weekend tournament to decide the Big 5 winner. In this event, Nova would only play two or three games, and I’ve already covered the fact that I don’t like losing any of the four games. But I really don’t like sacrificing the true road games for neutral court. In fact, with these games being played at the Wells Fargo Center the NCAA seeding committee could even look at all of them as home games for Villanova. That would downgrade their value even further. It’s not a bad idea, but I think we can do better. In fact, we already have.

Last season, Villanova played La Salle at the Palestra. It was the first time I felt the energy of one of these Big 5 games since I had been in school back in the mid 2000’s. La Salle brought back all the old traditions. They threw streamers after the first basket, and in keeping with tradition Villanova’s Darryl Reynolds stepped over the free throw line after the ensuing technical foul for disrupting the game. The crowd was a sea of “Beat Nova” T-Shirts the school had distributed to the students, and at least three roll out banners were passed through the crowd. It was the most electric environment I’d experienced at a Nova game in a while, and it’s something that could be re-created every year with ease.

The solution for the Big 5 isn’t to figure out something new, it’s to take a step back to the way it was, just with a few updates. What everyone brings up when discussing the old Big 5 is the double headers at the Palestra. While it’s admittedly an amazing arena (if you haven’t been there before, you need to see a game there), it’s just not big enough for what I have in mind.

The “Big 5 Classic” Triple-Header

I’m proposing a triple-header event in early November, ideally played as one of the first games of the season for all teams involved. This would be a huge festival-style event at the Wells Fargo Center, tied in with Xfinity Live, including tents, rides, games, basically what you’d find at a state fair.

The goal is to really get both the schools and the city invested in this, not just as three great basketball games, but as an annual event that the city looks forward to. Have crafts for the kids, a school vs school pop-a-shot competition for the students, a chili cook-off for the alumni groups, anything to get the fan bases excited to kick off the college basketball season.

As for the games, four of the five schools would play in the second and third games as the main events. You bring back and encourage all of the old traditions: streamers, banners, chants, everything. As for the fifth school, they have two choices. The first is to bring in Drexel and let them pretend to be a part of the Big 5 for the day. The second, is to schedule a big name school if possible, but if not, someone local that would be willing to come in from a city that maybe Philly doesn’t like so much. St. John’s from New York or Maryland from D.C. come to mind, but you get the idea. The Big 5 fan bases might want to beat the crap out of each other, but you can sure bet that they’ll rally around a Philly school to beat any intruding outsider.

Is it a perfect idea? No, it’s not. And I get that there are plenty of people, especially those who have only really experienced Villanova’s ten Big 5 titles over the past thirteen seasons, that think the Big 5 isn’t worth Nova’s time or that the Wildcats have just outgrown it. But I’ve seen how great these games can be, and I’m not ready to let go of a single one. Heck, even beating Drexel was fun this year. The Big 5 can be great again, I just hope fans are able to check their recency bias long enough to see it come true.