VILLANOVA, Pa. — It’s not supposed to be this way. Not supposed to be possible. Not here. Not in this city.
But Tuesday night at The Pavilion in the Philadelphia suburbs, impossibility succumbed to Villanova basketball. It was wounded by every incisive Josh Hart drive and every long-range Kris Jenkins bomb, until finally it fell, along with Temple, in No. 1 Villanova’s 78-57 victory.
Tuesday’s triumph was the 16th and final win in 16 Big 5 games for the Wildcats’ senior class of Hart, Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds. Hart and Jenkins have played in all 16. It’s the first time a senior class at Villanova, Temple, St. Joe’s, La Salle or Penn has gone 16-0 in the City Series. It’s the first time anybody has even come close.
Nobody, at least, had come close enough to make Villanova coach Jay Wright believe the feat was achievable. “Never,” Wright said last week when asked if he could ever imagine a class achieving it. “I wouldn’t think that would even be remotely possible,” said Wright’s top assistant, associate head coach Baker Dunleavy, on the eve of the 16th of 16 for his seniors.
“The teams in the area are so good,” Dunleavy continued. “And so well-coached. And the atmospheres… the rivalry, the intensity… I’d never expect to go undefeated in the Big 5 in a single season. You just don’t.”
But Villanova has. The streak now spans four years and 18 games, the last loss a 76-61 home defeat to Temple on Dec. 5, 2012. It features an average margin of victory of 19.6, and with Hart and Jenkins on the floor, not one margin in the single digits.
“This is a pretty special group,” said Temple head coach Fran Dunphy postgame. “Hart and Jenkins have done some unbelievable things as a twosome… It’s hard to argue that they’re not the best grouping [ever in the Big 5].”
Tuesday’s game illustrated why many are so stunned by the unblemished record. Villanova made just four of its first 17 field goal attempts as the teams slugged through an ugly first 12 minutes. When the hosts threatened to break the game open, up 20-8, the outmanned Owls responded with an 8-0 run.
But Villanova was and is too good. Hart (26 points) was and is too freakishly multi-talented, Jenkins (4-of-6 from three) too accurate from deep. Wright’s team used defense (18 forced turnovers) to pull away to a 29-16 halftime lead and a 21-point final margin.
The Wildcats’ run in the city is far from unfathomable. After all, on a national scale, it’s a secondary or tertiary accomplishment compared to the program’s ascent into the college basketball elite over the past three-plus seasons. Villanova has claimed three Big East regular season titles, one postseason crown, three top-two NCAA Tournament seeds and one national title in that time; meanwhile, no other Philadelphia school has finished a season in Ken Pomeroy’s top 40. Hart and Jenkins have now won 108 games as Wildcats, and have an outside chance to become the winningest players in college basketball history.
The widening gap, however, doesn’t make the Big 5 success any less unprecedented. Even in 2005, when Wright had the first of back-to-back top-10 teams, Villanova lost to 16-14 Temple. St. Joe’s legendary early-2000s group led by Jameer Nelson and Delonte West went two-straight years without a loss, but went 1-3 in Nelson’s sophomore year, losing to Penn at The Palestra.
“We all here in Philly know what a great feat this is,” Wright said postgame. “I don’t know if they know it across the country, but we do. And I think that’s why we play well in those games. When the players understand that, you never have a letdown.”
The Big 5, which was birthed in 1955 and has been contested almost regularly since (the five-team round robin format went on hiatus from 1991-92 to 1998-99), is steeped in history. That history, for the most part, has been defined by parity. Prior to Villanova’s current run, no team had ever won more than two consecutive outright titles. Even after it, Temple still holds the all-time lead with 27 outright or shared championships. And by the turn of the century, all five schools had won at least a share of 10 crowns.
As Villanova, the only major conference team of the five, perhaps separates itself from the pack, the games nonetheless remain difficult as ever. On top of the many very apt clichés about rivalries, there’s so much familiarity among the five programs.
“They’re challenging games to coach in,” says Wright, who grew up around Philadelphia, and who is in his 16th season at Villanova. “It’s easy to prepare; it’s harder in game to make adjustments, because [opposing coaches] make adjustments based on knowing what you do.
“And the players know each other. You give them the scouting report, but they play against these guys in the summer, they’ve played ‘em every year before, and most of them played against each other in AAU.”
Nowadays the familiarity between players applies less and less, as all five schools extend their recruiting webs around the country. Both Hart and Jenkins, for example, are from Maryland. But when players arrive as freshmen, regardless of from where, Wright and his staff make a point to give a bit of a Big 5 history lesson.
“We try to get our guys to appreciate how important that tradition is to Villanova and the rest of the schools, and to the city of Philadelphia,” Dunleavy says. “We just want to make sure that when they go into these games, they understand the passion and intensity that go into it — and why.”
Hart recalls his freshman year, and one of Wright’s lessons. Afterwards, he turned to Reynolds, who is from Philly.
“Darryl, is that really how it is?” Hart wondered.
“Yeah, man,” Reynolds assured him.
Hart says he has a better sense of that history three years later. More importantly, he now owns a massive chunk of it.
“It’s something that 10, 20, 30 years down the line,” Hart said postgame, “we’ll look back on and it’ll be pretty cool.”