Today would have marked the second day of the Elite Eight, and the Final Four would have been set by tonight. In place of that, re-live the ten best ‘Big Five’ teams from the last quarter-century.
Rec: 26-7 (A-10 Reg. Season & Tourney Champ)
Lost in Sweet 16 to Kentucky
Led by a three guard set of Rashid Bey (15.0 ppg), Arthur Davis (14.7 ppg), and Terrell Myers (12.1 ppg), this Hawks team finished #12 in the AP Poll and were a 4-seed heading into the Tournament. Ranking 6th in the country in three point shooting, this group wasn’t afraid to bomb it from deep.
A lot of teams could have been slotted here at #10, but the ‘97 Hawks group were regular season A-10 champs, A-10 Tourney champs, and made it to the Sweet 16—that’s a level of success that most teams don’t achieve. It would have been interesting to see how far they might have gone had they not run into a dominant Kentucky team led by a cachet of former HS All-American’s and future NBA players—Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, Jamal Magliore, to name a few.
Rec: 24-13 (A-10 Tourney Champ)
Lost in Elite 8 to Michigan St.
This team had a slightly different identity than most of Chaney’s squads in that they didn’t suffocate you on defense. While they played their characteristic slow pace, they won through efficiency on offense.
By limiting turnovers (2nd least in the nation) and crashing the offensive boards (9th) this Owls team was built for the tournament. They had the fifth most field goal attempts in the country, giving ample scoring opportunity to Lynn Greer (18.2ppg) and Quincy Wadley (15.1ppg).
After a mid-season 7 game losing streak, this was a Temple team that caught fire winning 14 of 19 to end the season. Heading into the A-10 tournament as a team barely on the bubble, they likely needed to win to guarantee a spot in the Tourney. After doing just that they handily upset 6 seed Texas, 3 seed Florida, and then revenged an early season loss to 7 seed Penn State before running into a Michigan State team lead by future NBA stars Jason Richardson and Zac Randolph.
This was John Chaney’s last team to make the NCAA Tournament. Temple wouldn’t go on to win another game in the Big Dance until 2011.
Rec: 24-10 Lost in Sweet 16 to Wichita St.
“The Southwest Philly Floater” will always be remembered as one of the iconic moments in recent Big 5 history. Tyrone Garland’s game winning shot to send La Salle to the Sweet 16 is as rewatchable of a moment as they come:
Of course the fact that the team had to win a play-in game in Dayton first, prior to beating Kansas St. and Ole Miss on their way to the Sweet 16 is what made this ride more impressive, and more deserving of this spot than most.
While Garland (13.1 ppg) is remembered for the shot, he was the spark plug that perfectly complemented Ramon Galloway (17.2 ppg) Tyreek Duran (14.2 ppg)—two elite scorers—and physical big Jerrell Wright (10.8 ppg on 58% shooting). Even more special, all four of those core pieces are Philly natives.
Rec: 24-11 (A-10 Reg. Season Champ)
Lost in Elite 8 to Duke
This Temple team suffocated opponents in classic John Chaney fashion; playing at a slower pace, limiting second chance opportunities on the glass, forcing turnovers, and holding opponents to 38% shooting from the field. With the 7th best scoring defense in the country, this is how they won.
On offense they shot threes (9th in attempts), crashed the boards (12th in ORB), and limited turnovers themselves. They didn’t necessarily have a go-to scorer, but instead boasted six players who averaged over 8 shots per game, and a seventh who averaged over 6.
Sometimes we see teams in the tournament who are difficult to game plan for because they have a handful of guys who can “be the guy” on a given day, and that’s how this Owls team grinded their way to the Elite Eight. Sadly they ran into a Duke team full of college stars and future NBA players, namely Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and Shane Battier.
Rec: 24-8 Lost in Sweet 16 to North Carolina
This team could be considered right there with the ‘06 Nova squad but the fact that it had less experience goes without saying. I’ll get more into detail on that team soon, but the ‘05 team had a three-headed attack of Randy Foye (16.2 ppg), Allen Ray (15.5 ppg), and Curtis Sumpter (15.3 ppg). With Mike Nardi, Kyle Lowry, and big man Will Sheridan playing complementary roles, this was the best ‘Nova team since the ‘96 Big East champions.
Despite beating a pre back-to-back champion Florida team in the round of 32, the end of the road came in the Sweet 16 against eventual National Champion North Carolina—led by Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton, and Marvin Williams, this was UNCs first title since the Dean Smith era.
Looking back, you could make an argument that this Villanova team was the best opponent UNC faced all tournament long.
Rec: 28-5 (Big East Reg. Season Champ)
Lost in Elite 8 to Florida
I think out of all the teams on this list this is the one that got away, so to speak. Led by a three headed backcourt of Randy Foye (20.5 ppg), Allen Ray (18.5 ppg), and Kyle Lowry (11.0 ppg, 2.3 spg)—and we can’t forget Mike Nardi (10.4 ppg) off the bench—Jay Wright’s three and sometimes four-guard lineups were ahead of its time.
This team ranked inside the top-10 all season, but despite that success and being a top-seed, they weren’t a match for an eventual back-to-back National Champion Florida Gators team led by Joakihm Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford, Taurean Green, and Lee Humphrey—all of whom averaged double digits, despite each averaging less than ten shots per game.
Obviously a defense led by Joakim Noah (3x All-NBA Defense, 2013 DPOY), Al Horford (5x NBA All-Star), and Corey Brewer (‘06 SEC DPOY, 12-year NBA vet.) had a length and physicality that was too overwhelming for the small ball of ‘Nova. Add in snipers Lee Humphrey (46% on 6.5 threes per game) and Taurean Green (38.4% on 6 threes per game) and there was just no chance this Gators team was losing—they were a juggernaut in every sense of the word.
Rec: 30-2 (A-10 Reg. Season Champ)
Lost in Elite 8 to Ok. State
These are probably my earliest Philly-related memories of March Madness. This was the Jameer Nelson and Delonte West show (with a dose of Pat Carrol mixed in)—averaging 20.6 and 18.9 point per game respectively, these were two of the best players in the country.
As a team they ranked 2nd in the country in three-point shooting, averaging 40.4% from deep on their way to compiling a 30-2 record and the #1 ranking in the AP poll entering the A-10 Tournament. Beyond a high octane offense, this team was well-rounded; they lacked a clear weakness and had a solid defense led by the 6’11’’ A-10 leader in blocks Dwayne Jones, an elite rim protector good enough to have a cup of coffee in the NBA.
This team had the making of a Final Four squad, if not the making of a National Champion, but they ran into an Oklahoma St. squad that used a balanced attack and tough defense led by future pros Tony Allen and John Lucas. The Hawks held a modest to small lead for much of the game but a poor shooting performance (38% compared to 47% for OSU) ultimately did them in.
While it’s certainly an iconic season in Big 5 history, it could have ended with so much more. This would be the last time a Philly team other than Villanova would have a legitimate contender.
Rec: 30-8 Lost in Final Four to North Carolina
Truthfully there are a few rosters on this list that might beat this ‘Nova team in a head-to-head matchup, but as the only non-champion roster that broke through to the Final Four they’re most deserving of the third spot.
This team was pretty much a two-man show of Scottie Reynolds (15.1 ppg) and Dante Cunningham (16.2 ppg), and a damn good one at that. But that’s not to say they didn’t have the right mix of complementary pieces. Reggie Redding and Dwayne Anderson were a tandem of plus-defenders with good size, and Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes were a pair of bucket-getters off the bench. This allowed Jay Wright to mix and match lineups around Reynolds and Cunningham—leaning toward scoring/defense when fitting.
The iconic moment of the ‘09 run, and one of the most memorable plays in Villanova-lore, was the last-second Scottie Reynolds layup against Pitt to send them to the Final Four.
Rec: 36-4 National Champions
I had a really hard time separating the ‘16 and ‘18 championship teams. While there was probably more NBA talent and pure athleticism on this roster, I can’t bring myself to rank them ahead of the next team on this list.
Nonetheless, it was a similarly cohesive and completely unstoppable group of players as two years prior. Led by Brunson and Bridges this time around—both played key roles as freshman on the ‘16 team—this version tar-and-feathered the competition on the way to a National Championship, as neither Kansas or Michigan laid a glove on them over Final Four weekend.
Beyond Brunson (18.9 ppg) and Bridges (17.7 ppg) this team was stacked. Donte Divencenzo (13.4 ppg) was arguably the best player throughout March, Eric Paschal (10.6 ppg) and Omari Spellman (10.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 43.3% 3FG) were highly-skilled yet physical big men who could shoot, dribble, and pass—foreshadowing what they would do in the NBA—and sixth-man Phil Booth (10.0 ppg) had more experience battling in March than anyone else on the roster.
At the time it was a real concern that this team only went six-deep in their rotation, but they were so multiple in what they could do with their lineups that it never manifested itself in matchup problems. The thing about lacking depth, is that it only begins to have an adverse impact when your roster is stretched-out and stressed—but that never really happened to this ‘Nova team once March began.
Here’s highlights from Donte Devincenzo’s 5-threes, 31 point performance in the Nat’l Championship game:
Rec: 35-5 National Champions
This group had the perfect backcourt concoction of senior Ryan Arcidiacono (12.5 ppg) and a young freshman Jaylen Brunson (9.6 ppg) to complement the combo of Kris Jenkins (13.6 ppg) and Josh Hart (15.5 ppg) on the wing. Throw in a true college center in Daniel Ochefu (10.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg) and this roster makeup was more traditional than in Wright’s past.
Throw in Phil Booth as the sixth-man, and freshman Mikal Bridges as a two-way wing off the bench and suddenly it becomes obvious why this team won it all. Arch was the quintessential ‘Nova leader, Brunson flashed his future greatness, Kris Jenkins could fill-it-up from anywhere (62.1 TS%, 39% on 6.5 3PA per), Ochefu was the lynchpin of a great defense (+9.1 DBPM), and Josh Hart was the do-it-all swiss-army-knife who made winning plays on both ends of the floor.
This roster feels like it could have been manufactured in a lab—shooting, ball-handling, defense, versatility, rebounding, IQ, physicality—and could beat you in a different way every night if it needed to.
In March this ‘Nova squad easily dispatched of two Iowa and Miami teams that were popular upset picks, before outclassing Bill Self’s top-ranked Kansas team led by a trio of Frank Mason, Perry Ellis, and Devonte’ Graham. Of course, nobody forgets a Final Four that saw them mercilessly defile an overhyped Oklahoma team (and Buddy Hield) before moving on to one of the most exciting National Championship games in modern history.
You could make a legitimate argument that the 2016 North Carolina and Villanova teams were the two best individual college basketball teams of the 2010s—I would make that argument—and they’ll likely both go down as some of the greatest college teams of all-time.