‘Nova, St. Joe’s to throw down in Philly for Big 5 bragging rights

Kyle Scudilla

One team is 16-2. The other stands at only 9-8. Yet in one game on Feb. 7, the No. 4 Villanova Wildcats will match up with their arch-rivals, the St. Joseph’s Hawks, to decide which team grabs Big 5 respect. No matter what the standings say from year to year, the game between Villanova and St. Joe’s is always a showdown with a lot on the line, giving the annual match-up a championship tournament atmosphere.

The rivalry, started in 1955, has spanned over 50 years and has received the appropriate dub “The Holy War.” Whether or not this edition of the contest will end up with a thrilling overtime period, upset victory, or stolen mascots (which certainly are not unprecedented for these two squads) remains to be seen, but what is known is that both teams will be going full tilt to win this heated early February contest.

The game itself is huge in its own right, garnering a great deal of local press coverage, but two extra factors are adding even more intensity to the highly anticipated match-up. Not only is the game being carried by ESPN2 to a national audience, but the crowd in attendance should be a near 50/50 split between ‘Nova and St. Joe’s fans, which should create an incredible atmosphere at the Palestra. The fans of the Wildcats and Hawks will be going toe to toe just like the players on the court. If Villanova’s fans can come out as enthused as the small but highly effective cheering section the ‘Cats had at the Joyce Center in Notre Dame, then it’s possible that ‘Nova Nation can help the Palestra feel a little bit like home despite the otherwise hostile surroundings.

As far as Villanova’s chances on the court, they are clearly the superior team headed into this year’s game, but as any Philadelphia basketball fan knows, the Big Five is notorious for creating nail-biters and grinders no matter which two teams are playing. The way Villanova’s been playing lately, however, that should not be of great concern, because they have made a habit of winning close games in the all-important Big East contests. The Cats are winners of five straight against the Big East, including Kyle Lowry’s game-winning tip-in with 1.7 seconds left against the Fighting Irish, as well as three other single-digit wins. This winning streak against good competition is doing great things for Villanova’s NCAA tournament-seeking squad, making them battle-tested not only at home but also on enemy turf.

One enormous key to the team’s recent Big East success has been the fantastic play of Allan Ray, averaging close to 24 points and nine rebounds a game over his last three contests. Despite suffering a hamstring injury before ‘Nova’s game with South Florida, he led the team in scoring, rebounding, and assists against Notre Dame, helping to will the team to a big road win, regardless of a game-time decision based on his health. Teamed with Mike Nardi’s hot shooting of late (21 points per game in his last two contests) and Randy Foye’s leadership (most notably when he almost single-handedly scratched and clawed the ‘Cats to a three-point victory over South Florida), the Wildcats seem to be enjoying the spotlight of the games that are crucial to defining where they will stand come March.

Standing in the way of the red-hot Villanova four-man backcourt in the rivalry game against St. Joseph’s is the Hawks own solid guard play, which features three players averaging double figures in scoring. The two traditional guards in St. Joe’s lineup actually pose a favorable match-up for the vertically challenged Wildcats, standing at 6-foot and 6-foot-1. The ‘Cats certainly know, however, that size does not directly translate into success, and will not take this bunch lightly. They are led in scoring by Abdulai Jollah, a 6-foot-1 shooting guard that is also second on the team in rebounding. He is averaging over 16 points a game against Big Five competition, and scored a season-high 30 points against another AP Top 25 team, Ohio State. He is joined in the backcourt by point guard Dwayne Lee, a senior who leads the Hawks in assists while also contributing close to 11 points a night. The guard trifecta for St. Joe’s is completed by 6-foot-5 swingman Chet Stachitas, who gives the starting five a legitimate long-distance shooting threat. The senior has connected on 43 percent of his three point attempts this year while averaging over 14 points per game.

Despite being led by their guards statistically, the Hawks also have plenty of size they can call on to play significant minutes both in the starting lineup and off the bench. Sophomore Rob Ferguson, freshman Ahmad Nivins, senior Dave Mallon, and sophomore Pat Calathes range in height from 6-foot-8 – 6-foot-10, and each have made contributions to St. Joe’s this season. The likes of Will Sheridan, Jason Fraser, Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark will need to continue to put a body on these big men and rebound the basketball well if ‘Nova’s guards want to try to run circles around St. Joe’s set of guards.

Despite the hype and due attention surrounding Villanova’s match-up with their biggest rivals, the Wildcats have a game earlier in the week that is actually more important to them in the standings. On Saturday, the ‘Cats will host the Marquette Golden Eagles, another one of the “new kids on the block” in the Big East. While Marquette has been basically lost in all the talk of the Big East, they have handled the switch from Conference USA quite well, tallying a 5-3 mark in conference games as well as a 15-6 record overall. The squad has already garnered wins in closely matched conference games against Notre Dame, Seton Hall and DePaul.

However, one cannot say that the Golden Eagles have gone completely without national attention this season. In early January, the team played host to the No. 2 Connecticut Huskies (who also happen to be the current No. 1 team in the country) and soundly defeated them 94-79 for UConn’s only loss so far this season. This win was not only a huge résumé builder for the team, but also launched the name of 6-foot-10 senior Steve Novak onto college basketball’s radar screen. Novak erupted against the vaunted Huskies’ frontcourt for 41 points and 11 rebounds. The forward was really able to show off his versatility during the game, knocking down six three-pointers as well as going a perfect 11-for-11 from the charity stripe. Because of his rebounding presence and adeptness at knocking down the three-ball, Novak really makes his defenders be as adaptable as he is in order for them to have success. For the season, he is averaging close to 16 points and six rebounds per game.

While Novak has been the most notable Marquette player on the national scene, he certainly has not been alone in steering Marquette to a winning record in the Big East this season. Ask Dominic James, the 5-foot-11 freshman who’s been the catalyst for Marquette’s offense. He has posted excellent all-around stats this year (15.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg and a team-high 5.6 apg) and has certainly proven he can handle the responsibilities of being a good point guard early in his college career. In his first career game for Marquette, he dished out a season-high nine assists. He knows how to get his teammates involved in the flow of the game, and is a solid option to shoot the ball or feed Novak and the team’s other scoring threats.

His backcourt mate, Jerel McNeal, has also been a young player on the rise. The 6-foot-3 freshman is averaging 11.2 ppg and 4.3 rpg in his first year with the Golden Eagles. His breakout game this season was also the win against UConn, where he put up season-highs in points (19) and rebounds (12). Though he’s not much of an outside threat, McNeal is an efficient shooter, connecting on 46 percent of his attempts from the field thus far this season.

Villanova knows from experience in the Big East that it cannot afford to overlook any of the conference’s teams this season, and although Marquette may not have the glamour of some of the Wildcats’ other opponents so far this year such as Oklahoma, Louisville, Texas and Syracuse, they’ve certainly proved they can hold their own in the Big East.

Coach Jay Wright has his team in the mindset that each game is as important as the next, and even the younger players on the team have learned that from all the close games ‘Nova has been able to win lately. Wright has given every indication that his players enjoy playing in these close contests.

His team’s fans may not, but his players do, and that’s what will pay dividends in the postseason.