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A History of the Holy War: Villanova Basketball vs St. Joe’s

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As Villanova takes the short ride down the road to their natural rival, let’s take a look at the the Mayhem on the Mainline.

UConn v Saint Joseph’s Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Today will be the 64th meeting in the basketball rivalry between the Villanova Wildcats and the Saint Josephs Hawks. Despite being the road team, the Wildcats are 16 point favorites in a rivalry that’s lost a little bit of its luster in recent seasons.

In what was once argued as Villanova’s greatest rivalry, the Wildcats have made short work of the school down the road. Nova has averaged a 16.3 point victory and a 9-1 record in their last 10 games. While St. Joe’s is now under the direction of former Jay Wright assistant Billy Lang, that trend doesn’t look like it will be changing this season.

That got me thinking, when was the last time the “Holy War” really was a competitive series? So let’s take a look back at 60+ years of Mayhem on the Mainline, and see if this rivalry can return to the glory days.

Holy War Overview

Let’s start with some stats. Villanova currently leads the series by 15 games at 39-24, and has outscored the Hawks by 307 points over their 63 games. The last time the series was tied was the 1987-88 season when the Wildcats were lead by greats like Doug West, Mark Plansky, Tom Greis, and Kenny Wilson. Here are some more fun facts about the Villanova vs. St. Joe’s rivalry:

  • The two teams have never played when both teams were ranked.
  • The most points ever scored by either team was by Villanova in 2002 with a 102-73 victory.
  • The largest margin of victory came just two years ago when Villanova won by 41 points.
  • The most consecutive wins by either side is Villanova’s current 7 game streak
  • St. Joe’s led the series for the first 25 years until Villanova finally tied it up in 1978
  • The schools have played every season except four years in the 90’s: ‘92, ‘94, ‘96, and ‘98
  • In the 1971 season, the schools played three times including the NCAA Tournament. Villanova won all three games.

With those tidbits out of the way, let’s focus on the rivalry. In my opinion, there are two factors that make a rivalry great: both sides coming away with victories, and close games that intensified the rivalry. With that general criteria, I think we can look at three 10 game stretches where the Holy War was at it’s best: The 1960’s, the 1980’s, and the 2000’s.

The 1960’s

When the two schools started their rivalry on December 14th, 1955, it was a pretty one sided affair. St. Joe’s had just hired a new coach by the name of Jack Ramsey, and it turns out he was pretty good. “Dr. Jack” would coach St. Joe’s to five Big 5 titles, 7 conference championships, and the only Final Four in school history. He still holds the record for the best win % of any coach in school history at 76.5% over 11 seasons. To put that in perspective, Jay Wright currently sits at 71.9% in his 18+ seasons.

So it’s no surprise that Ramsey dominated Villanova in the 50’s, winning the first six games against the Augustinian school down the road. But in 1961 Villanova hired a new coach of their own by the name of Jack Kraft. Not only would Kraft get the Wildcats their first win in the series in his first season, he would oversee the ‘Cats through the closest games in the rivalries history.

The ten game stretch from 1960-1968 (they played twice in the ‘63 season) never had a game decided by more than single digits. St. Joe’s still took most of these games, going 7-3 during that period, but the average victory was by less than 5 points. In fact, four of the games were decided by a single possession. Both schools would go to the NCAA Tournament during that stretch, and both would be ranked as Top 5 teams in the AP Poll as well.

Villanova saw legends like Hubie White, Wally Jones, Jim Washington, Bill Melchioni, and Johnny Jones. For the Hawks, it was Jack Egan, Tom Wynne, Steve Courtin, Cliff Anderson, Mike Hauer, and Dan Kelly. But towards the end of that stretch Ramsay left to coach in the NBA, and Kraft began his own domination of the rivalry. Villanova would dominate the rest of the 60’s and 70’s, winning 10 of the next 12 games. That included the first four games for a new coach of the Wildcats, Rollie Massimino.

The 1980’s

The end of the 70’s and the majority of the 80’s could easily be argued as the hay day of the Holy War. While Massimino coached at Nova throughout the 80’s, the Hawks saw two coaches in that stretch: Jim Lynam and Jim Boyle. The Jims would each win their first Holy War against Massimino, keeping the trend going of new coaches bringing a new spark to the rivalry.

While the stretch in the 60’s never saw a game decided by more than double digits, this stretch in the 80’s was arguably more competitive. In a 10 game stretch from the 1979 season to 1988 the series was an even split at 5-5, and Villanova outscored St. Joe’s by just a single point. The games were decided by an average of just over 5 points, and only two were decided by double digits. Neither team won more than three consecutive years in a row, and both teams were able to win on the road.

St. Joe’s was a good team, but not a great one during that time. They made 3 NCAA tournaments including a trip to the Elite 8, but they were never ranked over those 10 years. Villanova on the other hand rose into the AP Poll Top 5, made 8 NCAA Tournaments, and of course won the National Championship in 1985. But even in that Championship year’s Holy War, Villanova won by just 3 points in a true Philly rock fight, 47-44.

During those years Villanova was lead by some of the greats like Rory Sparrow, John Pinone, Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, Harold Pressley, Harold Jensen, and Doug West. St. Joe’s saw its own run of all-timers like Norman Black, Bryan Warrick, Bob Lojewski, Tony Costner, Maurice Martin, and Rodney Blake. But the good times couldn’t go on forever, and the national spotlight that came with a Championship once again gave Villanova an advantage.

Unfortunately, that same attention led to a cooling off in the rivalry as it moved to just an every other year affair. Massimino and Boyle both left their schools in the early 90’s, and during that decade the Holy War would remain competitive but still only be played once every other year. Finally in 2000 the rivalry was returned to a yearly event. And just one year later, another new coach would breathe a whole new type of life into the rivalry.

The 2000’s

Phil Martelli had been promoted to head coach of the St. Joe’s Hawks in 1996, and saw immediate success. In just his second year he and the Hawks on their conference, their conference tournament, and took St. Joe’s to their first NCAA Tournament in over a decade. However, in his first four seasons as a head coach he still couldn’t beat his schools biggest rival, Villanova. But in year five that was all going to change. The Wildcats had hired some new young coach and Martelli was going to wipe the floor with him. Except he didn’t, because that new coaches name was Jay Wright.

Villanova v Kansas Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

In his first year at Nova, Wright’s team put up the most points ever in the history of the rivalry. Villanova clobbered St. Joe’s 102-73, and it was the precursor to an all new kind of exciting 10 game stretch in the rivalry. From 2003 to 20012, Villanova came out on top of St. Joe’s by just a total of 5 points. But these weren’t close single digit games. These were absolute slobber-knockers in which the teams would go back and forth throwing haymakers. The average margin of victory during that stretch was 12.5 points, and half the games were won by 15 or more. Villanova had the slight advantage in record as well, going 6-4 against St. Joe’s through the 2000’s and into the early 2010’s.

Beating up on each other clearly put these two teams in the right state-of-mind to beat up on the rest of their opponents as well. St. Joe’s would be ranked the #1 school in the country during that span, as well as make 3 NCAA Tournaments including an Elite 8. The Wildcats would be ranked #2 in the country, and make seven NCAA Tournaments including a Final 4. Villanova was led through this era by Gary Buchanan, Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry, Mike Nardi, Curtis Sumpter, Dante Cunningham, Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, and Maalik Wayns. Meanwhile, St. Joe’s featured greats like Jameer Nelson, Delonte West, Pat Carroll, Ahmad Nivins, Pat Calathes, Carl Jones, and Langston Galloway. St. Joe’s won the final game in that stretch, but it would be their final win in the series to date.

Following that 2012 season has been the greatest stretch in Villanova history, and it’s been clearly shown through the Holy War as well. In the last seven games in the series, Villanova is 7-0 with an average margin of victory over 22. During that time the Wildcats have made every NCAA Tournament, been ranked both the #1 team and the #1 overall seed, and won 2 National Championships. Jay Wright hasn’t just owned the Hawks, he’s owned all of college basketball.

Today’s Game

Earlier I said that the hiring of Billy Lang didn’t look like it was going to buck Villanova’s trend of dominance any time soon. But after going through the best eras of the Holy War, I think I need to amend that thought. A new coach, with backgrounds in both the NBA and the enemies camp is just the kind of spark that could reignite the fire between these two teams. We’ve seen it happen again and again, and this is exactly the kind of hire that could spark the upset St. Joe’s fans have been dreaming of! Let’s take a look at their KenPom.com Scouting Report.

Ok, maybe it’ll be a competitive game next year. Go Cats!