Best Big 5 rivalry not a Holy War

The battle with St. Joseph’s means more after last years’ classics.

Fran Dunphy listened to the question and then politely delivered his carefully phrased response.

The men’s basketball coach wasn’t biting on a reporter’s bait — err inquiry — regarding Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli’s statement that Ahmad Nivins is the best collegiate basketball player in Philadelphia.

“I respect what Phil has said and done,” Dunphy said. “We’re just a little different in how we go about doing what we do. I hope in the end, the ballots will come in and people who get what they get deserve it.”

Wise man, that Fran Dunphy.

With the Owls’ next game against St. Joe’s, Dunphy could have injected some juice into the storied Temple-St. Joe’s rivalry. But he didn’t, choosing to let the game sell itself.

That Dunphy avoided a petty argument through the media is a justice to all Big 5 basketball fans because this rivalry has quickly developed into the best among the city’s six Division I teams.

The only other rivalry that’s even strong enough to be mentioned in this discussion is the Holy War between the Hawks and Villanova. But the Wildcats have little to gain by beating St. Joe’s, while the Hawks have nothing to lose against a Big East opponent.

The Hawks haven’t gained much there recently, aside from last year’s shocker. The Cats have won nine of their last 12 meetings, often in blowout fashion.

The rivalry between St. Joe’s and Temple features two evenly matched squads and, more importantly, factors into the league’s standings.

Last season, the rivalry almost determined a NCAA Tournament berth. No one would have been surprised if the NCAA selection committee passed over the Hawks after their loss to Temple in the Atlantic Ten Conference Tournament finale.

That game left this rivalry at its highest point.

The Owls and Hawks, which typically play a pair of regular-season games, have squared off nine times in the last three seasons, with the Hawks holding a 6-3 advantage.

The third game in each of those seasons came during the A-10 Tournament, thus eliminating the loser from a shot at an automatic NCAA berth.

So to many of these players, especially those who grew up in the area, Thursday’s game at the Palestra is more than just another A-10 tilt.

“I’m pretty sure everybody on our team knows what this game means,” senior guard Dionte Christmas said. “You’re playing against guys you see everyday in the summertime. To a couple guys, it means more than just a game.”

Senior guard Semaj Inge said last season that “I just don’t like those guys.”

Perfectly understandable.

For a while, the Hawks held a tight grip on the Owls, beating them by significant margins. But the last four contests – which include three of the most thrilling games in Big 5 history – have been decided by a total of 11 points. Count ‘em.

“It’s going to be a hard-fought game. It’s going to be a physical game,” Christmas said. “We just have to go out there and be attentive to detail.”

If last year is any indication, Christmas is absolutely right. There was no margin for error in that trio of games.

The Owls blew an 11-point first-half lead in the teams’ first contest last season, with then-senior guard Pat Calathes drilling a wide-open 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds left to win it for the Hawks.

The next game saw the Hawks blow a 14-point second-half lead, with then-senior guard Mark Tyndale driving to the basket for the game-winning layup.

Then, the rivals played for the ultimate prize – a trip to the NCAA Tournament. St. Joe’s again held a sizeable lead, but Temple slowly chipped away, edging the Hawks, 69-64.

Such a rivalry needs no boost from coaches bickering through the media. The plot on the hardwood is thick enough.

Thank Dunphy for realizing that.

John Kopp can be reached at

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