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Drexel Women's Basketball recently joined the Big Five, now competing alongside Penn, St. Joe’s, Villanova, La Salle, and Temple. 

Credit: Jean Park

VILLANOVA, Pa. — The Big 5 has finally joined the ranks of power conferences like the Big 10 and Big 12, but in a way you may not expect. 

The Drexel women’s basketball program, a long-time neighbor and rival of Penn, has officially been added to the Big 5 basketball conference — a collection of Philadelphia-based university basketball programs that compete each year for regional glory. The conference will consist of Penn, St. Joe’s, Villanova, La Salle, Temple, and now — Drexel.

Now with six members for both men’s and women’s basketball, Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson has announced that the league will follow the precedent set by other collegiate leagues by keeping its iconic nomenclature despite the numerical inaccuracy.

“This will always be the Big 5, with six very important members,” he said.

The addition of the women’s program comes one year after the men’s program was added to the illustrious conference, with this new transition marking the complete inclusion of Drexel into the Big 5.

It was also announced that the traditional round-robin playing format will be replaced with two three-team pods that will determine seeding in a same-day triple-header to decide the Big 5 championship, a change the men’s programs made last year with the tournament being held in the Wells Fargo Center. Villanova, at the expense of less Big 5 basketball inside the Palestra, will be the host of the inaugural women’s Big 5 Classic tournament on Dec. 6, 2024 in Finneran Pavilion.

Chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor Daniel Hilferty, who was also named a new ambassador for the Big 5, further revealed that the men’s tournament will continue to be held in Wells Fargo Center for the next three years. This continued transition towards a tournament format and inclusion of Drexel is part of the Big 5’s larger plan of revitalizing the once-beloved conference.

When it comes to the relevancy of the Big 5 inside of Philadelphia, and the recent spike in popularity for women’s basketball, Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin has high hopes for Drexel’s inclusion and subsequent new tournament format.

“I mean, seeing the format the men did that drew excitement for Penn and the women’s program — I think it adds that level of excitement,” McLaughlin said. “Bringing the groups together … all six teams being together is the most powerful thing of all.”

The much-maligned round-robin format, which has been used in every season since 1979-80 besides the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, receives a much-needed revamp with the new triple-header format adding a sense of finality.

“We’ve struggled a little bit with the kids that are not from the Philadelphia area,” he said regarding gaining attention for Big 5 competition. “When the games are all separate, and at the end not always knowing who won … this gives it a defined ending.”

“I think sadly, the round-robin sorta gets lost,” Penn’s Head Athletic Director Alanna Shanahan added. “This [Big 5 Classic] has a culminating moment — which I think in some respects [the round-robin] was lacking.”

Penn women’s basketball went 1-3 versus their Big 5 foes in the 2023-24 campaign, and with the program having the largest discrepancy in attendance between men’s and women’s teams inside the Ivy League, the newfound format and support for women’s basketball comes as an opportunity in many ways for the Red and Blue.

“It’s been a long time coming as far as a reboot on the Big 5, and we are thrilled with what happened with the men last year,” Shanahan said. “I’m really excited that the women’s coaches saw the value of the tournament, changed the format, and are excited to have this venue [Finneran Pavilion] host this year.”

When speaking on the future of Penn women's basketball, Shanahan further shared her hopes for a continued rise in relevancy, envisioning a future in which the women’s program shares the bright lights of the Well Fargo Center with the men’s program — but not before the newly founded tournament format takes a stop on Penn’s home court. 

“I’d love to think in the year that we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Palestra, [The Big 5 Classic] may come to the Palestra,” she said. “... I do see a point in the not-too-distant future, hopefully after we celebrate the Palestra 100th, where this will obviously be moved to the Wells Fargo and you can celebrate both the men and women in that building.”

With play scheduled to pick up again next fall, only time will tell if this change-up will bring more attention toward the already rapidly growing world of women's basketball. No matter what happens, including the addition of more and more programs to the conference, the Big 5 will continue to fight for relevancy as Philadelphia’s premier basketball conference.