PHILADELPHIA– You wouldn’t necessarily call the Penn Quakers an underdog when it comes to the Big 5, but as of late, they’ve been more of an afterthought.
It’s no secret that Villanova has been the most successful team that plays in the Big 5, three national titles, two in the previous three seasons, and in the Jay Wright era, they’ve been a force to be reckoned with.
Temple has probably been the second most successful Big 5 team. They hold the 5th most victories across Division-I basketball and saw enormous success in the John Chaney era.
La Salle in the late 80s to early 90s were dominant with 1990 National Player of the Year Lionel Simmons leading the charge for the Explorers. Plus, they have a national title banner hanging in the rafters of Tom Gola Arena as well.
Saint Joseph’s had a National Player of the Year of their own as well in Jameer Nelson as well as a National Coach of the Year in Phil Martelli who has guided the Hawks to multiple NCAA Tournament appearances in the 2000s.
And then there’s Penn. The “nerds” of Philadelphia that play in the Ivy League where you’re more likely to become rich because of a job in your major than being rich as an NBA player.
Though they’re not just the “nerds”, they have a rich history quite actually, but compared to the other four schools, they seemed to be an afterthought. They haven’t won an outright Big 5 title since the George W. Bush administration. They were on a mission to change that this season and to steal a quote from the 43rd President of the United States:
For the first time since the 2001-02 season, the Penn Quakers captured an outright Big 5 title after they defeated the Saint Joseph’s Hawks 78-70 at the Palestra on Saturday night.
“There was a documentary about the Big 5 and there were comments made by former players that talked about the Big 5 and on the side they mentioned Penn,” Penn head coach Steve Donahue said. “You could sense that ‘oh yeah Penn’, that’s got to end and our guys watched it and I think that was something motivating, we’re tired of not really feeling like we’re apart of it, I don’t think it’s a direct disrespect by the coaches or players, but if you haven’t won it, that’s what happens.”
Penn is also the first non-Villanova school to sweep the Big 5 since Temple did it back in 2009-10.
The Quakers started their Big 5 slate against La Salle on December 8 and defeated the Explorers 83-65 at Tom Gola Arena. Then it was on to Villanova on December 11 and the Quakers shocked the Wildcats at the Palestra by beating them 78-75. Their next Big 5 matchup would be at Temple on January 19 and it would be yet another victory for the Quakers, defeating the Owls 77-70. Finally, the Quakers topped off their perfect Big 5 schedule by defeating the Hawks 78-70 on Saturday night.
“I thought it’s what we talked about, a Big 5 experience, kind of what we grew up with,” Donahue said. “Building full, two teams playing extremely hard, half the building is rooting for you, half the building is rooting against you,”
17 of the 20 members on Penn’s roster aren’t listed to have grown up in the Delaware Valley. But even though they aren’t from the area, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a knowledge of the history of the Big 5.
Take it from Michigan native and freshman guard Bryce Washington, who’s 23 points led the way for the Quakers. He also chipped in 10 rebounds and 4 assists, a career-high in all categories.
“I always knew the Big 5 was something special in Philadelphia and that it’s pretty much a packed house every game,” Washington said. “Philadelphia basketball fans love it, just playing here is even better than I thought, a packed Palestra, it doesn’t get any much better than that, especially coming home with the win.”
So much history is packed into the Palestra or “The Cathedral of College Basketball” as it is sometimes referred to. They used to play all of the Big 5 games at the Palestra including doubleheaders between four schools. So for Penn to capture the Big 5 in what you could consider to be the home of the Big 5 is something special.
“I think we all know, people from Philly can feel it,” Donahue said. “I had friends in from out of town experience it for the first time, that’s what it is, half the building is going crazy, it’s kind of like in this day and age is a throwback to when we were all young and loved the game.”
Donahue mentioned that while they were in town on Thursday, the San Antonio Spurs and head coach Gregg Popovich held a shootaround inside the storied arena.
“The quote was ‘you play in all these plastic arenas’ something to that effect,” Donahue said.” “‘This is where you fall in love with the game, the spirit of competition’ and he’s right on, that’s what this is,”
Surely winning an Ivy League title last season as well as a Big 5 title this season will help the recruiting process for seasons to come.
“We talk about it in recruiting and we always say we’re a Big 5 team that plays in the Ivy League, not the other way around,” Donahue said. “But the reality of it is you better start winning games if you’re going to talk that talk.”
And now, the Quakers will have city bragging rights and the opportunity to “talk that talk” until next season.