Last week was a pretty remarkable week for Philadelphia college hoops. Just the week before, there were murmurs that this season could be the first since 1977 that not one of Philly's six college basketball teams would get an invite to the NCAA Tournament. That would be the first time in my life that Philly wouldn't be represented in the Big Dance. In a city with a college basketball tradition as rich as Philadelphia's, that would be a damn shame.
But after an incredible week of basketball, there is a glimmer of hope. In the past seven days, Philly has seen three court-stormings thanks to three wins against top 10 opponents. And Philly schools compiled a 4-1 record against top 25 competition. Villanova and La Salle were the ones providing the victories (Temple lost to #9 Butler for the only loss), and after their impressive weeks both are at least in the discussion to join the party in March.
I'll start with Villanova. The Wildcats came into the week in a tailspin, having lost three straight games. They lost a hard-fought contest at Syracuse in which the 'Cuse was just too much for them in the end. Then they played a horrendous five minutes of basketball to close the game at home against Pitt, turning what at one point was a back and forth game into a 15-point blowout loss. In the next game, they again faltered down the stretch, falling by 3 at Providence.
After those three games, which left the Wildcats with an 11-7 record, Nova Nation had pretty much accepted the fact that there would be no postseason play this year, and certainly no NCAA berth. Especially with games against #5 Louisville and #3 Syracuse coming up.
That's when the unexpected happened. On Tuesday, the 'Cats gutted out a tough win against Louisville. 'Nova students stormed the court, and it was fun and exciting, but chances were that it would just be a bright spot in a rough season.
The 'Cats weren't done giant-slaying though. They followed up the Louisville win with a thrilling win against #3 Syracuse. 'Nova was able to score the final six points of the game, including a 3 from freshman Ryan Arcidiacono with 2.2 seconds left to force overtime. In overtime, junior James Bell took over, scoring 8 points. Despite his first few shots in the OT going halfway down and then somehow rattling out, he stayed confident and hit several huge shots to get the victory. Sophomore Darrun Hilliard (25 pts, 7 rebs, 6 ast) and Mouphtaou Yarou, (14 points, 16 rebs), one of only two seniors on the team, also deserve mention.
Defeating two top-five teams back-to-back is an incredible feat for any team, let alone one who was struggling and who wasn't expected to make much noise anyway. It's still a long shot that the 'Cats get in the tournament, but after two huge wins they at least have a pulse. They are 13-7 and here is their remaining schedule: @ #24 Notre Dame, Providence, @ DePaul, South Florida, @ #21 Cincinnati, @ UConn, Rutgers, Marquette, @ Seton Hall, @ Pitt, and Georgetown. If they can manage 6 or 7 wins from those games, they will certainly be in the discussion.
Villanova wasn't the only city school making noise last week. The night after 'Nova's win against Louisville, La Salle incited another court-storm after beating #9 Butler. It was the first win for the Explorers against a top-10 opponent since 1980. And then hours after Villanova beat Syracuse, La Salle capped of their impressive week with a win on the road against #19 VCU.
La Salle stands at 14-5 with 10 games remaining. Butler and VCU currently stand as the only ranked opponents on La Salle's schedule, so it was key for them to get those signature wins. They also have a win against Villanova, which is looking more impressive than it was just a few weeks ago.
La Salle still has work to do, but the Atlantic 10 is much improved, especially with the additions of Butler and VCU, and the conference may receive a few more at-large bids than they are used to. And the Explorers have their signature wins.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way and what ultimately becomes the fate of the postseason hopes of Philly's college hoops teams, it was a historic week for the Big Five, and that says a lot. As Philadelphia sports fans have been getting bombarded with mediocrity and disappointment from every angle recently, 'Nova and La Salle provided some excitement and a reason to smile for the weary Philly sports fan.