Saddle Up: Big game in the Big 5

December, 30, 2010
12/30/10
6:13
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It wishes its roommates would go back to work so it could write in peace.

Temple at No. 8 Villanova, 7 p.m. EST, ESPN2: College hoops has plenty of great traditions. Rock Chalk Jayhawk. Indiana's pinstripe pants. John Wooden's courtside seat. Digger Phelps' tielighter. The list goes on and on.

Here's one we probably don't talk about often enough: The Philadelphia Big 5. Started all the way back in 1954, the Big 5 -- the annual battle between Phildelphia's five colleges, La Salle, St. Joseph's, Penn, Temple and Villanova -- is a vestige from a bygone era, a more provincial time, when being the best college hoops team from your city was just as important as being the best in your conference or the best in your state. It was also the era when schools like Temple and Villanova were on an equal playing field with schools like La Salle and St. Joseph's, before college sports become big business and college hoops became divided into haves and have-nots.

The modern college hoops environment is far different, of course, and most of those changes have been for the better. (You can watch a game on your satellite HDTV package while you read a live-blog on your iPad. In your face, 1950s.) But part of what makes college hoops so good is the little things that have stayed with us forever. The Philly Big 5 is one of those.

Of course, this isn't 2010-11's first Big 5 game, but it is unquestionably the best. Villanova is the No. 8-ranked team in the nation, its only loss coming to Tennessee in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 26. Temple is 9-2 with an impressive (albeit home) win over No. 10 Georgetown.

Interestingly enough, both teams have excelled on the defensive end thus far this season. That's standard operating procedure for the Owls, who were one of the nation's best defensive teams last season even as they struggled to score on the other end of the floor. But elite defensive prowess is a bit of a new thing for Jay Wright's team. Wright's teams in recent seasons -- and last year especially -- never defended this well.

Last season, as Villanova limped to a disappointing finish in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats developed a nasty habit of giving up free throws to their opponents at a disturbing rate. That's not the case this season; Villanova is holding opponents to a 28.7 percent free throw rate thus far. Though they don't force many turnovers, they do force opponents into bad shots, and Mouphtaou Yarou and Antonio Pena are tremendous on the defensive glass.

In other words, it's fair to expect a defensive game. Temple is again struggling to score -- too few offensive rebounds and too few free throw attempts will do that to a team -- and Villanova is a bit stuck in neutral in the post-here-go-score-now-Scottie Reynolds era. The Wildcats have slowed down their offense, but that hasn't made them any more efficient, and averaging 31.5 percent for the season from beyond the arc is a good way to torpedo your offensive efficiency.

So, yes: defensive game. Perhaps a slower game than most Villanova observers are accustomed to. But with the relative talent on hand, plus all that lovely tradition baked in, this should be awfully fun game, too.

Old Dominion at No. 10 Missouri, 8 p.m. EST, ESPN3: On its face, this game should be an easy Missouri win. The Tigers are ranked No. 10 in the country, they're playing at home, and they're doing so against a CAA team that hasn't sniffed the top 25 this year.

Things aren't quite that simple. Two reasons why:

1. Despite Missouri's impressive (and often heart attack-inducing) success in November and December, and its subsequent climb to the top 10 in the AP and coaches' polls, Mizzou's tempo-free profile is a little bit disconcerting. The Tigers are ranked No. 25 in the country by Ken Pomeroy largely thanks to a defense that, if it isn't forcing its opponent into frequent turnovers (and it usually does) can end up being a little soft. John Gasaway calls non-turnover possessions "effective possessions," and a couple weeks ago he described why Mizzou's defense, for all its turnover-producing ability, gives up a lot of points when the opposing team does manage to avoid giveaways.

Missouri's recent wins have boosted their stats-based reputation since Gasaway wrote his piece, but the fundamental issues he discussed continue to linger. Because of those issues, the Tigers -- while still very good -- are also occasionally vulnerable. That's one.

2. Two is this: Old Dominion is a tough match up for Missouri, primarily where rebounding is concerned. Missouri allows its opponents to rebound 34.8 percent of their misses, which ranks them No. 245 in the nation. Old Dominion grabs 46.8 percent of its misses, the second-highest tally in college hoops. If ODU avoids turnovers, gets good shots, and has Frank Hassell and Ben Finney rebounding the way they've been rebounding all year, then this could be a tough test for Mizzou and a thoroughly attainable upset win for the Monarchs. Something to keep an eye on, anyway.

Everywhere else: In the second night of Pac-10 play (and a repeat of last night's quirky Washington vs. L.A. match ups) Arizona travels to Oregon and Arizona State goes to Oregon State ... The Jimmer Fredette show makes another stop in New York, this time in Buffalo ... UCF will host the 10-3 Princeton Tigers ... Memphis will have its hands full with stud Lipscomb center Adnan Hodzic, who is averaging 20.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game ... the Horizon League's two most surprising teams, Loyola-Illinois and Cleveland State, meet in Cleveland ... and Oakland will travel to Oral Roberts for a big-time Summit League game, which you can watch on ESPN3. If that's not a full New Year's Eve Eve, I don't know what is.

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