A FEW weeks ago, the sports scene in Philadelphia looked pretty grim. It appeared that none of our pro teams had any chance to make the playoffs in the foreseeable future. We are still in no danger of becoming Boston, but things have brightened somewhat.
Although the Flyers are still a long shot, the play of goalie Steve Mason has given us some reason to believe it just might be possible to turn things around this season. Most fans are hoping that the Sixers won't turn out to be playoff contenders, but the play of Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and our dynamic rookie, Michael Carter-Williams, plus the coaching of Brett Brown, has made it hard not to root for this overachieving team. If they fall short of the playoffs and get lucky in the lottery, getting a player like Duke's Jabari Parker (who looked electric against Kansas) could turn our dreams into reality almost immediately. Most exciting of all has been the Eagles' amazing transformation into legitimate playoff contenders. We have an easier road than the Cowboys, and we all are psyched over the very real possibility of winning the division.
But what has really got me excited is the return of college basketball and the real possibility of all six of our Division I teams playing in the postseason. All six have a chance to make the NCAA field, and although that might be unlikely, all are going to be good enough to be invited to the NIT or one of the other postseason tourneys. For you college hoop fans, here's my analysis of the "City Six."
The Explorers are the best bet to participate in March Madness. They have leadership from four upperclassmen who return from last year's Sweet 16 team - guards Ty Garland and Tyreek Duren, and big men Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack. Besides, without Xavier, the A-10 is not very strong.
The Dragons have an excellent chance to win the Colonial Athletic Association this year. They opened the season playing UCLA on the road and gave the Bruins all they could handle in a five-point loss. They followed that effort with a solid win over Illinois State from the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Hawks could fly away with the Atlantic 10 if La Salle falters because, like the Explorers, they have senior leadership provided by Langston Galloway, Ron Roberts, Halil Kanacevic and Daryus Quarles. Of course, the Hawks also have an ace in the hole with their charismatic coach, Phil Martelli.
I attended last Saturday's Penn-Temple game at the Palestra (more about it later) and came away convinced that the Quakers, picked by the writers to finish second in the Ivy League behind last year's champion, Harvard, have the talent to beat the Crimson. Penn has two of the city's best players: Darien Nelson-Henry and Tony Hicks. Nelson-Henry, at 6-11 with great hands and a nice touch, could develop into the Quakers' best big man ever. Hicks, a lightning-fast guard who can take it to the hole, shoots well from three-point range. Hicks is only a sophomore but he just might be the city's best offensive player.
The Owls lost a ton of players from last year's team that almost beat the powerful Indiana Hoosiers in the second round of the NCAA Tourney. But with four talented newcomers to a returning cast of Will Cummings, Anthony Lee, Quenton DeCosey and Dalton Pepper, this may be the most athletic team that coach Fran Dunphy has ever had at Temple. Whether he can blend them together to contend in the tough American Athletic Conference (which includes Louisville, Uconn, Memphis, Cincinnati) remainsto be seen, but don't bet against Dunph. Expect to see Hooter and friends in the NIT.
It will take all of Jay Wright's coaching skill to get the 'Cats to the postseason, but the Big East is decidedly weaker with the loss of Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt and UConn. Jay has a team with a lot of good players, but no one star who can carry the team. This team still has a ton of potential, as they play great team basketball led by sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. Don't count these 'Cats out!
So I'm pretty optimistic about our Philly-area college hoops teams having solid years across the board. But I must admit, there's still something missing for me, and that's Big Five games at the Palestra. Last Saturday's Penn-Temple game, for example, was magical. It was sold out, with fans from each school filling the iconic gym. During the Quakers' furious second-half run to take the lead, the noise was deafening. And when the Owls stormed back to win it in the final minute, the rafters shook.
The Big Five (or City Six) is special - no other city has six quality basketball programs. But the tradition of playing all the Big Five games at the Palestra put this town on the map and made it the country's college-basketball capital. Nothing comes close to the excitement of a Big Five game at the Palestra, where the fans do battle as much as the teams on the court.
Too often, our best traditions are done away with because they are less profitable. Too often, the focus on "institutional advancement" trumps what's good for the community as a whole. Playing these games at the Palestra is good for the Big Five, good for college basketball and good for the city of Philadelphia.