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The Big 5 competitions saw a pause after 40 years in the 1990s due to scheduling conflicts but restarted in 1999 and have been going strong ever since. Credit: DP Archives

“They say there’s no trophy for winning the Big 5. They must not be from Philadelphia.”

In 1954, Penn president Dr. Gaylord Probasco Harnwell – the namesake of Harnwell College House – announced the formation of a new method of intercollegiate basketball competition. Rather than playing in a conference, five Philadelphia-area schools would play a round-robin series of games for a city championship. 

At the time, only Penn was involved in a separate conference, while the other member schools Villanova, St. Joseph’s, La Salle, and Temple were independents. The round robin became a “chance for Philadelphia to present the best basketball it had to offer,” as well as provide for the upkeep of the Palestra, which became home to most of the series’s games.

1955-56 was the inaugural season of Big 5 play. Until 1995, each team would play each other exactly once per year, for a total of 10 games. When La Salle joined the Atlantic 10 Conference in 1995, the conference which St. Joe’s had already competed since 1982, they began to play twice a year per conference rules. As a result, Big 5 rules were altered so that only the first matchup between two Big 5 teams in the same conference counts toward the series standings.

Since the beginning of the series, Temple and Villanova are tied with the most Big 5 titles with 27 apiece. St. Joe’s is next with 20, followed by Penn with 14 and La Salle with 11. However, Villanova has sole possession of first place in most outright titles, at 16. The Wildcats have been on a Big 5 hot streak in the past decade, winning seven of the last 10 and five straight between 2013-14 and 2017-18, although the Quakers halted that run in 2018-19 with an undefeated Big 5 record. There have also been three occasions in which all five schools tied, either with identical 2-2 or 1-1 records in Big 5 play.

The Big 5 has seen many a legendary player pass through the Palestra. Since its inception, the group has awarded the Robert V. Geasey Trophy to the most outstanding player in Big 5 play – specifically games between Big 5 schools, not the rest of the season – and many of its past winners are heavily decorated athletes. The trophy has been award to six NBA champions, including Penn legend Corky Calhoun, four NBA/ABA All-Stars in Guy Rodgers and Eddie Jones of Temple, Bill Melchionni of Villanova, and Jameer Nelson of St. Joe’s, an NBA Sixth Man of the Year in current head coach of Temple Aaron McKie, and one Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, Rodgers.

The Big 5 has been a stronghold of collegiate basketball skill and talent from the beginning. In the past 44 NCAA Tournaments, there has been at least one member of the association competing for a chance to win the NCAA championship. The most recent year in which all five schools were shut out was 1977, and in 1978 three of the five — Penn, Villanova, and La Salle — won berths. Two Big 5 schools have won NCAA championships — Villanova and La Salle — and all five have made it to at least one Final Four.

After a brief break from Big 5 competition in 1991 due to conference schedule conflicts, the group started play again in 1999, and is still going strong to this day. Villanova’s recent success may seem daunting, but history indicates it will be anyone’s series in 2021-22.

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