The Hardwood Flash: Feb. 2

Around the hardwood with's Bryan Armen Graham

Feb. 2, 2006

By Bryan Armen Graham

Assistant Editor,



Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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For just the third time in its 50-year history, the champion of the Philadelphia Big 5 -- the annual intra-city turf war waged by La Salle, Pennsylvania, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova -- will be decided in the final game of the round-robin by a pair of schools with 3-0 records.


Most of the rivalries that compose one of college basketball's most unique and storied traditions are more chummy than contentious, but not the one that will be showcased Tuesday on national television to decide the winner of the silver anniversary City Series.


The annual vitriol-fueled battle between the fraternity's two most hated adversaries -- Jesuit-affiliated St. Joe's and Augustinian-affiliated Villanova -- has long been dubbed the "Holy War". For `Nova fans, St. Joe's will always be the quaint commuter school on the fringe of West Philly with the perpetual inferiority complex; for the Hawks, Villanova will always be the tony country club on the Main Line for the rich kids, a wine-and-cheese crowd that voiced little objection with the near-destruction of the Big 5 in the early 1990s.


With its gaudy record and national ranking, Villanova is a heavy favorite to take city bragging rights for the 17th time in program history. But rankings have long been thrown out the window for the Holy War which, more often than not, is contested before a 50-50 ticket split at the Palestra, the acoustic powder keg located on Penn's campus in West Philadelphia.


In fact, what's widely considered the most famous shot in the venerable basketball cathedral's history occurred during the 1966 battle between the two schools, when a little-known St. Joe's reserve named Steve Donches drained a 29-foot prayer to sink the heavily favored Wildcats, 71-69.


Busting Loose


No idea when ESPN changed the name of its annual made-for-TV basketball event from Bracket Buster Saturday to BracketBusters -- a silly-sounding moniker that may unwittingly attract fans of game shows -- but the pairings for the 13-game affair were announced Monday.


The three most intriguing matchups feature six teams that will likely participate in this year's NCAA tournament. No. 25-ranked UNI hosts Bucknell, Missouri State hosts Horizon League darling Wisconsin-Milwaukee and MAC-leading Akron meets a Nevada team led by All-American candidate Nick Fazekas. 


Game times and network assignments for BracketBusters, to be held on Feb. 17 and 18, will be announced on Tuesday.


Best Week Ever: The Super Seven


Conferences large and small are represented during a week peppered with rivalries old and new:


Feb. 2: No. 10 George Washington vs. Xavier at Cintas Center (Cincinnati, Ohio)


The top two clubs in the Atlantic 10 standings get together for their only meeting of the season on the very floor where they should meet again during the conference tournament. The Karl Hobbs-led Colonials (16-1, 6-0) are undefeated in 2006, having won eight straight games since a 79-58 setback at North Carolina State on Dec. 30. The Musketeers (13-4, 4-2), meanwhile, snapped a two-game skid Saturday with a 60-55 victory over Dayton.


Feb. 2: UC Irvine vs. Pacific at Spanos Center (Stockton, Calif.)


The Anteaters (12-8, 8-0), one of 11 remaining schools in Division I with unblemished conference records (see below), travel up I-5 for a tangle with the two-time defending conference champions  -- a game that could signal a Big West changing of the guard. Pacific (14-6, 4-2) is led by senior Christian Maraker, who paces Bob Thomason's team in points (17.2 per game) and rebounds (8.6).


Feb. 4: No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 22 Indiana at Assembly Hall (Bloomington, Ind.)


The top-ranked Huskies (19-1, 7-1) take aim at Victory No. 20 when they travel to Bloomington for a late-season OOC battle with Marco Killingsworth-led Indiana -- the first game of a make-or-break stretch for the Hoosiers (13-5, 5-3), who travel to Wisconsin and host Iowa next week.


Feb. 4: Kentucky vs. No. 8 Florida at the O'Connell Center (Gainesville, Fla.)


The Wildcats (15-6, 5-2) and Gators (19-2, 5-2) both lurk one game behind first-place Tennessee in the East Division standings of the Southeastern Conference, making Saturday night's battle of paramount importance to the division title hopes of either school.


Feb. 5: No. 9 Pittsburgh vs. No. 17 Georgetown at the MCI Center (Washington, D.C.)


The nouveau riche Panthers (17-2, 6-2) travel to the nation's capital for a tangle with the program that helped put the Big East on the map a quarter-century ago. A headline-grabbing victory over Duke vaulted the resurgent Hoyas (15-4, 5-2) into the Top 25 for the first time in four seasons. Subsequent victories over Notre Dame, Cincinnati and DePaul have kept them there.


Feb. 5: Marist vs. Iona at the Mulcahy Campus Center (New Rochelle, N.Y.)


In just one-and-a-half seasons at the helm, former St. Joe's assistant Matt Brady has engineered an admirable turnaround at Marist (13-6, 7-4), the Poughkeepsie school that sputtered to a 6-22 record the year before his arrival. But early MAAC setbacks have kept the Red Foxes two games behind first-place Iona (15-4, 9-2), and have made Sunday's battle with the Gaels a must-win if the Brady Bunch reserve any hopes for a regular-season conference title.


Feb. 6: No. 2 Duke vs. North Carolina at the Dean Smith Center (Chapel Hill, N.C.)  


It's been written the Duke and North Carolina are separated only by eight miles of pine trees and a couple of shades of blue. While a third separator -- the rift in depth and experience between this year's clubs -- might make the second-ranked Blue Devils a considerable favorite when they travel down Tobacco Road on Monday for the mother of all hoop rivalries, one can be sure that Roy Williams and the Tar Heels are licking their chops for a chance to put down their high-flying archrivals.




·         Eleven schools enter the backstretch of conference play with perfect records in their respective leagues: George Washington (A-10), Duke (ACC), West Virginia (Big East), Northern Arizona (Big Sky), UC Irvine (Big West), Memphis (C-USA), Pennsylvania (Ivy), Delaware State (MEAC), Bucknell (Patriot), LSU (SEC) and Gonzaga (WCC).


·         There are few hotter teams in the college ranks than San Diego State, the current Mountain West frontrunner. The Aztecs, led by likely MWC Player of the Year Brandon Heath, have won six straight since a loss to second-place Air Force in Colorado Springs on Jan. 7 -- and will try to avenge that defeat Wednesday at Cox Arena.


·         One of the college basketball's most curious streaks in recent memory came to a quiet end Wednesday night in Kingston, R.I., when Saint Louis topped Rhode Island at the Ryan Center for their first two-game streak of the season -- winning or losing. Since a season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois, the Billikens had gone loss-win-loss-win-loss-win all the way into February.


·         Syracuse suffered a rare home defeat to Seton Hall on Jan. 29 -- its fourth straight setback. The Orange hadn't lost that many consecutive games in a row since 2002, when a four-game skid to end the season -- capped by a loss to Villanova in the opening round of the Big East tourney -- relegated the Orange to the NIT.


·         Speaking of the `Cuse, one of its favorite sons looks to secure NBA cult immortality at the All-Star Weekend in Houston later this month. Hakim Warrick, the former Big East Player of the Year who accumulated 297 dunks during a four-year collegiate career (leading the nation as a senior), could enjoy a national coming-out when he competes in the Slam Dunk Competition on Feb. 18.

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