by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

College basketball has been a big deal in the East for a long time. Which might surprise some of the ESPN generation who could be excused for believing that hoops in the region didn’t really begin until the Big East was formed at roughly the same time as was ESPN. Indeed, the parallels between the Big East and the “sports leader” are remarkably similar. Each used the other quite effectively to establish their respective brands. The success in Big East hoops even motivated the league to branch out and form a football division, long considered out of the question for the many major Eastern independents, especially so since Penn State never had any inclination of casting its football lot with a regional conference. Joe Paterno was always thinking bigger and had his eyes on the Big Ten, which finally accepted the Nittany Lions in 1993.

But college hoops was a big deal along the eastern seaboard long before the Big East idea was ever hatched. Indeed, there was a stab at an alliance among those many independent entries several years before the Big East was formed.

And it was the predecessor of the modern Atlantic 10 that got the ball rolling in the region. Moreover, that alliance even included Penn State for all sports other than football.

The first serious attempt at organizing these various sports independents in the East was in 1976, when the old Eastern Collegiate Basketball league (ECBL) was formed. At first, it was a hoops-only league, and then changed its name to the Eastern Athletic Alliance (EAA) the next season. Mostly, however, the league was referred to as the Eastern 8, and had quite a formidable lineup in its earliest days. Try Villanova, Duquesne, Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia, George Washington, UMass, and Rutgers.

The Big East would form three years later in 1979 with a different collection of schools (Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall, UConn, and Boston College) in its original configuration. Rutgers and Holy Cross declined the invitation (which would eventually lead to much “what ifs” from both institutions, though Rutgers would eventually join the fold decades later).

Slowly, however, the Big East began to siphon the bigger names from the Eastern 8, as Villanova (in 1980) and Pitt (in 1982) would eventually jump leagues. Penn State even applied for admission in 1982 but was rejected, some suggesting as a slap at none other than Paterno and his rejection of ever becoming involved in a football alliance with the same collection of schools.

The Eastern 8 would re-brand itself as the Atlantic 10 for the 1982-83 season, by that time having added St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, Temple, and Saint Joseph’s to replace Villanova and Pitt. Future additions and subtractions to the membership group have further changed the composition of the league which hasn’t been at ten members since the ’80s, but continues to label itself as the Atlantic 10. (The Big Ten and Big XII are similarly inaccurately labeled, but with their brands already established as was the A-10, no need to bother to change the numerical label).

The A-10 has thus existed in the shadow of the Big East for most of the past three decades, although with the addition of La Salle in 1995, it became the unofficial “Philadelphia” league for college hoops. The Explorers, along with Temple and St. Joe’s, comprise three-fifths of the famous “Big Five” of Philly hoops, along with Villanova and Ivy League Penn. And Philadelphia remains the nerve center of the A-10, although the league offices moved to Newport News, Virginia from Philly in 2009.

An introspective on the storied Big Five demands more time and space than we have in the hoops TGS. Each entry has a rich hoops tradition worthy of its own book, and we highly suggest a pilgrimage to Philadelphia for any serious college basketball fan. Although the days are long gone when almost all of the games involving Big Five schools were played at the venerable Palestra, the old arena on the Penn campus which still plays host to games involving the Ivy League Quakers, and, only occasionally these days, other Big Five schools.

Still, the Palestra is worth a special trip, if only to see the small museum at the site that’s dedicated to the history of Big Five hoops. And if there isn’t a game going on, we still suggest a side trip to the Palestra for any college hoops aficionado visiting Philadelphia. Much like taking a look inside of Hinkle Fieldhouse on the Butler campus in suburban Indianapolis, simply stepping foot inside of the Palestra for a look around is akin to a religious experience for a college basketball junkie. All the better, however, if you can be there during a game.

Big Five hoops tradition is rich, although there’s a special team from the past we would like to acknowledge before providing a quick review of what’s going on this season in the A-10.

College hoops history is replete with teams that, for one reason or another, weren’t allowed to compete for national titles. During the UCLA reign of terror under John Wooden between 1964-75, there were a handful of schools on probation that were ineligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament. (Which some college hoop insiders find almost laughable, considering what was going on in Westwood those days in the era of big booster Sam Gilbert.) Most famous among those is probably Norm Sloan’s North Carolina State team of 1972-73, featuring David Thompson, that finished 27-0; eligible the next year in 1973-74, the Wolfpack finally ended the Bruins’ string of seven straight championships. A great Florida State team featuring Dave Cowens was similarly handcuffed by the NCAA during the 1969-70 season.

But we wonder if the best of all of those teams that couldn’t compete for the title was the 1968-69 La Salle squad, which gained little notice outside of the Philadelphia city boundaries but retains great memories for those who ever watched that Explorer team perform.

Those Explorers had been put on a 2-year probation by the NCAA for infractions committed in the late ‘60s under coach Jim Harding, who left the school after one year for the ABA’s Minnesota Pipers, and Joe Heyer. Stepping into the coaching breach was all-time Explorer great Tom Gola, who had led La Salle to the 1952 NIT title and 1954 NCAA Finals before a decorated career in the NBA with the hometown Philadelphia Warriors, and then the Knicks, before retiring in 1966. Gola had become a successful businessman and political figure in the city before being recalled by his alma mater as coach. The arena on La Salle’s campus also bears his name.

The 1968-69 team was a masterpiece, featuring a go-go offense that would trigger its devastating transition game at any opportunity. The addition of 6'7 soph F Ken Durrett (remember, freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition from the late ‘50s until the 1972-73 season) added an irresistible force to the Explorer lineup that also included a collection of pro-bound guards in Bernie Williams, Roland “Fatty” Taylor, and Larry Cannon, plus another guard named Fran Dunphy, whom you might better recognize as a modern-day coach (now at crosstown Temple). Though only 6-6, rugged frontliner Stan Wlodarczyk was a good match for any enemy big men.

Gola, noted for outstanding defense during his NBA career and reared on a style of balance and teamwork preached by his La Salle coach, Ken Loeffler, quickly remade those Explorers in his own image as a player. La Salle was always noted for its hurry-up teams, but the Explorers were also notorious for selfish play and non-commitment on defense. Much of that changed under Gola.

The Gola Explorers played fast and possessed remarkable quickness and symmetry within their lineup. Cannon and Williams, noted gunners, began to effectively share the ball. To combat enemy zone defense, Gola installed the old “weave” to provide scoring chances for all. The Explorers were strictly man-to-man on the defensive end, however, and they played it ferociously.

But it was the magnificent Durrett (right) who triggered the break with his board work and remarkable finishing ability. La Salle ran better than any Big Five team since the Temple entries of the late ‘50s that featured Guy Rodgers and Hal Lear, but the Explorers had the bonus of the irrepressible Durrett, who could dominate at both ends of the floor.

Gola’s 1968-69 La Salle side also had excellent depth, reflected in a game at powerful Niagara against the Purple Eagles’ All-American guard, Calvin Murphy. With Cannon suspended for missing the team bus and Taylor sidelined by the flu, Gola had to reach into his bench for help. Stepping into the breach was none other than Fran Dunphy, who kept Murphy in check, while the Explorers rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit behind Durett and reserve Ed Szczesny, who scored 18 points and hauled in 14 rebounds. La Salle won going away, 88-73.

The Explorers’ only defeat was a close call in the finals of the Quaker City Holiday Classic against an excellent, Frank McGuire-coached South Carolina team featuring G John Roche.

A February 8th matchup vs. crosstown Villanova proved the highlight of the season. The Wildcats had their own sophomore star in 6'8 F Howard Porter, who was scoring 23 ppg and had recently tallied 36 against Big Five St. Joe’s. The propsect of a Porter vs. Durrett matchup whet the appetite of all Philly hoops junkies.

The game didn’t disappoint, as it was a back-and-forth thriller at the Palestra. Jack Kraft’s Wildcat zone defense, with the shot-swatting Porter, awaited any Explorer forays into the lane, testing Gola’s troops. Nonetheless, La Salle jumped to a 23-17 lead behind the hot shooting of Bernie Williams, who scored eight straight points at one stage. Back, though, came Villanova, regrouping after court leader Frank Gillen left the game briefly with an injured knee. A spurt fueled by Porter and fellow F Johnny Jones resulted in a 9-0 run and a Wildcat lead, although La Salle had wrested back the advantage (though just barely) by halftime when it took a 34-33 lead into the break.

Gillen’s return to action fueled a quick Nova surge after the break to put the Cats ahead 42-38, but a defensive switch by Gola turned the momentum back into La Salle’s favor when Cannon was assigned to Jones, who had been hurting the Explorers until that point. With Jones properly muffled by the now defense-conscious Cannon, and Durrett beginning to get the upper hand in his personal duel with Porter (which was worth the price of admission alone, as the two complemented their offensive prowess with several highlight-reel defensive plays, and numerous shot blocks), La Salle went on a 10-0 spurt to take a 48-42 lead.

Still, the Wildcats had another run left in them, with Porter fueling one more charge to pull Nova within 2 at 63-61 with only 3:45 to play. At this point, however, Kraft had to instruct his zone defense to come out higher to force the action and help negate any La Salle delay tactics, but it was to eventually prove the Cats’ downfall. Williams, spotting an opening in the defense, fed the ball near the bucket for a lob pass to the acrobatic Durrett, who converted and was fouled in the process. Villanova never recovered from that traditional 3-point play, and Gola’s La Salle ended a 74-67 winner.

A few summers ago, Comcast Sports in Philadelphia decided to rebroadcast that memorable game, with in-studio commentary at the breaks provided by Dunphy and Villanova G Fran O’Hanlon, like Dunphy a modern-day coach (O’Hanlon at nearby, Easton-based Lafayette). Though almost 40 years after the original, it provided for spell-binding viewing. If a bit bittersweet, as Porter had recently passed away, as had the once-marvelous Durrett, who died in his native Pittsburgh at the age of 52 in 2001. Nonetheless, we strongly recommend any hoop fans to find that Comcast footage and take a look for themselves at the magic of that memorable night at the Palestra in February of 1969.

There were no more postscripts for the remarkable La Salle side from 1969 other than finishing the regular season 23-1 and ranked second in the final polls behind national champ UCLA. Sadly, Durrett’s playing career had a negative ending, too, when he suffered a knee injury during his senior season and was never the same player thereafter. The Durrett who was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals in 1971 was a shell of the great player Durrett was in his pre-injury days at La Salle.

Philadelphia hoop aficionados have long maintained that La Salle’s ’69 team would have had a shot at John Wooden’s UCLA title winners led by Lew Alcindor had the Explorers been allowed to participate in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins, who only lost vs. crosstown rival Southern Cal in a slowdown game that season (outlined on these pages last week), played a representative schedule that season, although the Pac-8 of that year was nowhere near as competitive as the Big Five in which La Salle participated. If the dream matchup ever occurred, most hoop insiders believe Alcindor would have eventually made the difference, especially considering how Durrett or Wlodarczyk would be giving up 7-8 inches to Big Lew. But others, noting how a Drake team similar in style to La Salle had almost derailed the Bruins in the Final Four, losing by only an 85-82 count, believe that Gola’s Explorers would have had more than a puncher's chance against the Bruins. The backcourt edge enjoyed by La Salle against that particular UCLA team would have been substantial, and UCLA never had to face a force such as the electric Durrett that season.

We’ll never know what might have transpired. But for Big Five fans old enough to remember, there was never any winner or loser to a UCLA-La Salle dream matchup in 1969 because it never happened. Instead, the potential battle can live forever in their minds of those who recall both teams.

And what a clash it would have been!

Following is a brief update on Atlantic 10 squads as conference play swings into full gear. The league appears to be the deepest it has been in several years, with several teams looking capable of landing NCAA at-large berths. Straight-up and pointspread records are thru January 8...

Saint Louis (13-3 straight up, 9-3 against the spread)...Rick Majerus has his best team in his five seasons with the Billikens, who served notice in a dominating win at the 76 Classic in Naheim over Thanksgiving week that they mean business. The return of PG Kwamain Mitchell, who missed last season due to suspension and injury, has added a valuable piece to the SLU puzzle (although he has yet to regain the shooting touch of his sophomore year when scoring 16 ppg; he’s currently at 11.6 ppg). Great inside-outside balance with rugged PF Brian Conklin (14.7 ppg) a force on the blocks and Aussie junior Cody Ross (41% beyond the arc) the Bills’ designated long-range gunner. Solid defensively and with plenty of depth, this SLU edition reminds many of Majerus’ best teams at Utah. Bounced back from recent close losses at New Mexico and Dayton to wallop George Washington over the weekend and keep in the discussion for Big Dance at-large consideration.

Temple (10-4 SU, 6-8 ATS)...Fran Dunphy’s Owls helped their NCAA at-large case immensely with win over Duke last week at the Sixers’ and Flyers’ Wells Fargo Center, although a subseqent home loss to Dayton indicates there is still work to do at the Liacouras Center. Dunphy has been operating without injured key frontliners Scootie Randall and Michael Eric for much of the first half of the season; both could be back in action by the end of this month. In the meantime, Dunphy relying on a seasoned and versatile backcourt that is providing all sorts of matchup problems because of its size, with Ramone Moore (16.9 ppg), Khalif Wyatt (15.8 ppg),a nd Juan Fernandez (12.8 ppg) all standing 6-4 and able to post-up smaller guards. Until Randall and Eric return, however, continued progress from 6-6 jr. PF Rahir Hollis-Jefferson (career-bests 9.6 ppg & 6.7 rpg) will be crucial for Owls to stay on Big Dance radar.

La Salle (12-4 SU, 8-2 ATS)...A pleasant surprise in the first half of the season, Explorers are still kicking themselves after blowing early games at Big Five rival Villanova (in overtime) and at Pitt. Emergence has been a bit of a surprise, especially since expectations were lowered following the transfer of C Aaric Murray to West Virginia in the offseason. Among the positives for HC John Giannini are excellent depth and much-improved three-point shooting (Explorers hitting 40% beyond arc). Dynamic backcourt paced by South Carolina transfer G Ramon Galloway (15.5 ppg) and former Rutgers transfer Earl Pettis (14.2 ppg) has caused fits for the opposition, two of four scoring in double digits for Giannini. Murray’s premature departure left a hole in the middle, although 6-8 true frosh and local product (Dobbins Tech) PF Jerrell Wright has been more than holding his own on the blocks.

Dayton (12-4 SU, 8-6 ATS)...Flyers are definitely on the ascent with three straight impressive wins over Ole Miss, Saint Louis (both of those at UD Arena) and at Temple. New HC Archie Miller (Arizona HC Sean’s brother) finally mixing and matching lineup properly after early adjustment period following his arrival and graduation of recent linchpin F Chris Wright, plus the transfer of last year’s PG Juwan Staten to West Virginia. Making the uptick more impressive is the fact theat Miller has lost key frontliner Josh Benson to a season-ending knee injury. But Miller has plenty of depth on the frontline (where sr. F Chris Johnson also provides leadership), and Southern Illinois transfer PG Kevin Dillard (12.4 ppg and 5.4 apg) has proven to be a revelation.

Saint Joseph’s (11-5 SU, 10-3 ATS)...While some in the Delaware Valley were wondering if HC Phil Martelli had lost his touch, the iconic mentor has instead authored a nice turnaround on Hawk Hill. Martelli force-fed several frosh a year ago, but that is now paying dividends as now-sophs such as G Langston Galloway (15.5 ppg and 52% from floor, including a deadly 49% beyond arc) and 6-9 swat machine C.J. Aiken (11.2 ppg and A-10 best 4.4 blocks pg) are now legitimate forces in the loop. Alongside prolific jr. G Carl Jones (18.7 ppg), Galloway might be part of the loop’s best backcourt pair. After many solid efforts, we’re inclined to give the Hawks a mulligan for their shock Saturday home loss to Charlotte, but Martelli knows his NCAA at-large hopes cannot afford too many more upset defeats. Note solid 6-1 dog mark thru Jan. 10.

Xavier (11-5 SU, 4-7 ATS)...The “X” owns perhaps the most curious storyline in the loop, having progressed into the rankings by mid-December but seeing the season go pear-shaped soon after the December 10 brawl vs. Cincinnati. Various suspensions clouded the remainder of the month and helped result in a downturn that resulted in five losses over a six-game stretch until Saturday’s hard-fought win at Fordham. The Musketeers are back at full strength, with Gs Mark Lyons (17.1 ppg) & Tu Holloway (16.7 ppg) leading the way, but the team’s psyche seemed shattered after the Bearcat fiasco. “X” still won some good non-league wins over Vanderbilt, Purdue, and Cincy, but at the moment we think it is very much on the NCAA bubble. Time still to put the season back on track, but it’s obvious the team was shaken by the Cincy brawl.

UMass (12-4 SU, 6-6 ATS)...We’re a little reluctant to buy into the Minutemen despite their 12-4 record, mostly because the bulk of those wins were recorded against suspect pre-league opposition. UMass was dispatched without too much trouble by Florida State, College of Charleston, and Miami-Florida in Pre-A 10 action, and was being blown out on Sunday at La Salle until a belated late rally cut the final losing margin to 7 points. More storm clouds are on the horizon, with the Minutemen asking for trouble by hitting only 63% of their free throws. Derek Kellogg’s deep bench, however, could yet prove a valuable asset, and the Minutemen have admirable scoring balance (nine tallying better than 6 ppg). But G Chaz Williams (15.7 ppg) is the only double-digit scorer, and UMass is missing to go-to element that graduated G Anthony Gurley provided last year.

Duquesne (10-6 SU, 7-5 ATS)...The Dukes are pesky, although a lack of size figures to eventually cause some problems. More so since HC Ron Everhart has been forced to continue juggling his lineup (he’s starting six different combos in the last six games) thanks to the absence of valuable 6-5 sr. swingman B.J. Monteiro (15.2 ppg, also top rebounder a t 5.7 caroms pg)), who has missed the Dukes’ last two games with an injury to his chin and stitches on his non-shooting hand stemming from a recent off-court incident. Duquesne can still pose plenty of problems with its dynamite backcourt pair of Sean Johnson (16.2 ppg) & T.J. McConnell (12 ppg), but its lack of size is an obstacle Everhart must overcome.

Richmond (10-7 SU, 7-5 ATS)...That rebuilt Richmond has stayed afloat reinforces the credentials of HC Chris Mooney, who lost bulwarks Kevin Anderson, Justin Harper, and Dan Geriot from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Mooney has uncovered one of the most unlikely stars in this year’s A-10 in waterbug 5-8, 140-lb. frosh G Kendall Anthony, scoring 13.5 ppg off the bench and providing immediate electricity once he steps on the floor. But he’s still a liability on the defensive end. Fellow guards Darien Brothers (14.6 ppg) & Cedrick Lindsay (12.7 ppg) are doing decent jobs taking the places of Anderson and Harper, but a key for the second half of the season will be the progress of 6-7 soph battering ram PF Derrick Williams, whose production has been dropping alarmingly in recent games.

Charlotte (9-5 SU, 6-2 ATS)...The depth of this year’s A-10 is reflected no better than by Charlotte, flying a bit under the radar in the preseason but emerging as a force in early league play by winning its first two games, including the aforementioned upset at St. Joe’s. Four starters returned from a year ago for second-year HC Alan Major, with the 49ers relying a bit more on their frontline for scoring production (Fs Chris Braswell & Javarris Barnett the only DD scorers) than most A-10 entries. Although there is plenty of experience on the perimeter led by sr. G Derrio Green, and help also provided in the backocurt by impressive frosh G Pierria Henry. Keep in mind that the 49ers faded badly down the stretch last season when losing their last eight conference games, though their experience makes them tough to dismiss.

St. Bonaventure (8-6 SU, 7-5 ATS)...Bona might have the A-10's premier interior weapon in 6-9 PF Andrew Nicholson (14.1 ppg), who demands extra attention on the blocks. But HC Mark Schmidt continues to experiment with perimeter lineup combinations, and the jury is still out on soph PG Matthew Wright (3.1 apg), who has blown a bit hot and cold running the Bonnies’ offense. Given the overload of top guards in this league, that shortcoming at the point could prove Bona’s eventual undoing.

Fordham (7-8 SU, 5-3 ATS)...They’re not yet recalling the days of Digger Phelps, when Charlie Yelverton terrorized the opposition, but Fordham might be on the recovery. Long the doormat of the league, the Rams are making a fist of it for 2nd-year HC Tom Pecora, who had some success on Long Island at Hofstra and appears to be fostering a turnaround in the Bronx. Fordham has a string of competitive efforts paced by 6-7 jr. F Chris Gaston (16.3 ppg & 11.1 rpg), who’s making a case for A-10 MVP honors. Included is a recent home upset over Ivy power Harvard, which broke the Rams’ 54-game losing streak vs. ranked foes. Pecora, however, is relying on lots of true frosh in key roles (such as Gs Bryan Smith, at 10.1 ppg, and Devon McMillan at 8.1 ppg), and will be watching closely if those youngsters hit the wall in the second half of the season.

Rhode Island (3-13 SU, 6-9 ATS)...After starting quickly but fading out in recent seasons, Ram HC Jim Baron hopes the pattern is reversed this season. He’s halfway there, as URI started extremely slowly, but there’s hope for improvement now that transfer Gs Billy Baron (Jim’ son via Virginia) and Andre Malone (via Auburn) became eligible in late December. The Rams have caught a bit of an updraft since, winning 2 of their last 4, with young Baron in particular providing a spark. But defense and board work remain spotty, and after brief encouragement following a recent win at Boston College, the Rams crashed back to the ground in last Saturday’s 70-53 home loss vs. Richmond. Still, now with all hands on deck, keep an eye on URI for possible progress in the second half of the season.

George Washington (5-10 SU, 2-11 ATS)...Tough going in D.C. for first-year HC Mike Lonergan, who arrived at Foggy Bottom from a successful stint at Vermont. But the Colonials can’t score, with only G Tony Taylor (13 ppg) tallying double digits. Fellow G Lasan Kromah, expected to contribute after missing almost all of last season with a foot injury, has yet to regain his old shooting touch and is converting only 35% from the floor (he converted 46% FGs in his last full season during 2009-10). The shooting woes have also inflicted last year’s 3-point specialist Nemanja Mikic, who connected on 44% beyond the arc a year ago but was scuffling at 31% from tripleville into early January. After last Saturday’s 78-56 loss at Saint Louis, GW had dropped nine straight spread decisions. At the moment, this looks to be the weakest A-10 entry by a good margin.

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