Big 5 round-robin thrives despite conference realignment

An old photo (but not too old) of the Big 5 banners in the Palestra's rafters. Hopefully they come back some day. (Jonathan Tannenwald/

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - When the full Big 5 round-robin was restored in 1999, the tidal waves of conference realignment had yet to start crashing across college basketball.

Now, as we enter the 15th season of the City Series' current era, scheduling all 10 games becomes a new kind of challenge. The five teams play across four conferences now, instead of three, meaning that more games become non-conference contests.

As conference play takes up ever more of the calendar, it won't always be easy for five schools to each devote four non-conference dates to contests against each other.

To be sure, securing each year's Big 5 slate has never been the simplest of tasks. I still vividly remember the weeks before the 2003-04 season, when seemingly irreconcilable scheduling conflicts threatened to derail the Villanova-Temple game. Fran Dunphy forced a settlement by inviting John Chaney and Jay Wright to his home.

I'm sure some of you remembers the deal that resulted: a midnight tipoff at the Liacouras Center. The game literally started in the very first minute of the very first day of the regular season.

Emotions were raw on the court and in the stands, but eventually both sides simmered down. The full round-robin was saved, and it hasn't really been threatened since.

The conventional wisdom is that fans don't need to worry about the round-robin's future. But it's impossible to not think for a moment about the effects of Temple's move from the Atlantic 10 to the American Athletic Association.

Now the Owls join Villanova and Penn in having to set aside four non-conference dates for Big 5 games. In the A-10, they only needed two.

Now, instead of three City Series contests taking place during conference play, there's only one: La Salle vs. Saint Joseph's.

But there really aren't any signs whatsoever that the full round-robin's future is under threat. The biggest reason for that is the five head coaches involved have a deep commitment to the City Series.

To be sure, the Big 5 has evolved plenty in its current form. Teams now play almost all their home games at their own gyms instead of the Palestra, including Saint Joseph's. Villanova won't play on 33rd Street at all this season because of the Hawks' decision to once again move the Holy War to Hagan Arena.

But college basketball's most historic gym will get big-time exposure on January 18, when ESPN's College GameDay comes to town for Temple-La Salle. It was a gracious move for La Salle to move the game there, and for Temple to move its home game against the Explorers next season to the Palestra as well. 

While at Atlantic 10 media day, I asked Explorers coach John Giannini and Hawks coach Phil Martelli for their perspectives on what it takes to keep the full round-robin alive.

Dr. John Giannini:

I have never heard in my nine years at La Salle a Big 5 coach ever question playing those games. Everyone wants to play them. Now, where we play them has been debated, but I think all of the coaches are all in. They're great RPI games for all of us. It's hard to get good opponents to play you on the right dates and where you want the game to be played.

We know that we don't have to leave the city limits to play top 50 and top 100 teams. That's something I think we all want to do. We're all potential postseason teams, and they're good games, you know there's no way around it, because it really is a special tradition.

Dates are hard. We have great relationships with the guys in the city, but dates are getting harder to find.

[An aside about Giannini's "my nine years" phrase: the Temple-Villanova spat happened the season before he arrived at La Salle. Chaney famously said he wouldn't play Villanova anymore if a deal couldn't be worked out. So technically, Giannini's memory is right, but perhaps not by much.]

Phil Martelli:

Two of the coaches said to me, "Well what are you going to do next year, with 18 league games and four Big 5 games?" We really have three Big 5 games: Penn, Villanova and Temple. So that's 21. You could say that's going to restrict you. We have those exempt tournament events and now you're up to 26 or 27.

But I look at it the other way, and say this is tremendous. Because now we have guaranteed nine home games, then we have these Philadelphia games, and they're really home games, because I don't care what campus you play on, and that's 12.

You're going to play at home, in Philadelphia, 16 or 17 times [total]. That has to help your fan base, it has to help the families of the players, and it has to help [players] academically. There's nobody among the coaches - and you know we're together a lot - who's talked about it getting to hard to do.

Here are some other notable quotes from Tuesday's gathering at the Barclays Center.

Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade on the conference's decision to spread its TV broadcasts across ESPN, CBS and NBC, instead of giving all rights to one network:

That was tremendously important. We were in a situation where all of our media rights and sponsorship rights were together in one package. For the last five years, since I've been in this position, we've been looking forward to June of 2013 when we would have the opportunity to un-bundle our rights.

Being able to do a national package with three of the best media companies in the world - in ESPN, CBS and NBC - has given us a tremendous amount of flexibility in the way that we've been able to select our games.

And then we recently announced a multimedia rights partnership with IMG, who will now do what they do best, which is go out with our sponsorships and multimedia rights. So I feel like we've got a lot of different engines working all in the right direction.

McGlade responding to a follow-up question (from me, I'll admit, as was the one above) about which of the three networks has first priority on picking games to broadcast:

That's all done when we negotiate our contracts. There's a very clear selection order. You've got to keep order in the household and our media partners are very aware of that, and as we negotiated with them, that was part of their selection process. So everybody knows right in the very beginning who's first, second and third.

The order is kind of complicated, because they select in tranches. So they make first selections and different partners come in and take the next group and the next group, and it goes from there.

[I'll leave it to you to judge whether she actually answered the question.]

George Mason coach Paul Hewitt on how the Atlantic 10 has changed from his days as an assistant at Villanova in the mid-1990s, when he recruited against Temple and other A-10 schools:

When I was at Villanova, we used to kid around and call it the "Steak Sauce Conference" - the A-1. Because it was Temple and nobody else. When I was in the Big East, that's what I used to tell recruits.

Now they've got good teams up and down the board. I look at Fordham and I know what Tom [Pecora] can do in terms of recruiting and coaching. Obviously Jimmy [Crews, of Saint Louis], what he's done in his career. It's a strong league up and down the ladder now.

Hewitt on adding a new local rivalry with George Washington to an old rivalry with Virginia Commonwealth, and what that can do to generate attention in a packed D.C. area sports landscape:

This move for us is good on so many levels. The George Washington game is going to draw a lot of interest. But don't forget Richmond, which is a longer-standing rival, along with VCU.

Academically it's great because our travel now has been cut. Everybody else is putting more and more stress on student-athletes by making them travel further and further distances, and then saying, "Well, why didn't you study when you got back at 3 o'clock in the morning?"

We have shorter trips with GW and Richmond, and Philadelphia is only two and a half hours away. So it's good all the way around.

We've got a pretty solid fan base. We'll get five to seven thousand. Last year, when Old Dominion and James Madison came in, those games were sold out. I don't think there's any reason to believe that when VCU, Richmond, or George Washington, those won't sell out.

And now you have quality teams like Saint Louis, UMass and La Salle that have national reputations. Our fans, because of the traffic around DC, people in that area [near George Mason's campus] like to stay there go out for sports and entertainment. The community in Fairfax comes out to our games for a lot of different reasons, but I think that might have something to do with it too.

Richmond coach Chris Mooney on the Atlantic 10's lack of NBA draft picks last season, and whether he'd rather have one-and-done stars or a group of upperclassmen:

I think that traditionally in college basketball, until the last 15 years, it was how many experienced upperclassmen you had. That's probably always going to carry the day, even though a one-and-done guy - a phenom - is introduced to the mix. That happens more and more, especially with the rule in the NBA.

There are a lot of good, solid, experienced teams [in the A-10], and maybe that's a little more boring than having guys drafted. Or not as eye-catching as having guys drafted. That's probably the reason for it.

You do need some star-power, and some guys who kind of emerge. It's different in college - that might their sophomore year, that might be their senior year. Or if they transfer, which is so prevalent, that might take them a year to get used to what's going on.

I'd love to have the opportunity to coach a guy who's a one-and-done, but I think for our level - and for Richmond specifically - I think it's really important to have guys who have been at school, been in the program, have had a chance to play, make their mistakes, and be more veteran as they're older.