To commemorate its 60th anniversary, the Philadelphia Big 5—a college basketball collective comprised of Penn, La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, Villanova, and Temple—is for the first time inducting noteworthy teams into the Big 5 Hall of Fame, one from each member school.
Steve Bilsky, executive director of the Big 5 and former athletic director (AD) at Penn, says the ADs at the Big 5 schools and himself decided to do something unique to mark 60 years of the city series.
“The idea of bringing in the best teams would be something that would fit the category, and I think everybody felt that way,” he says.
The Penn team picked for induction is the 1970-71 basketball team. Coached by Dick Harter, the team went undefeated during the regular season, with non-conference wins over the likes of Syracuse, Rutgers, Utah, and Ohio State.
The Quakers swept the Ivy League and the Big 5 for the second year in a row, including a 107-88 blowout of a La Salle team that featured Ken Durrett, the fourth pick in the 1971 NBA Draft.
Bilsky, an All-Ivy guard on the ’70-71 team, says sweeping the Ivy League and Big 5 still stands out 45 years later.
“Going undefeated in the league is a great accomplishment whenever you do it, and going undefeated in the Big 5 is a great accomplishment,” he says. “To be able to do both, obviously, is special, but also to do it at a time when the Ivy League teams were really strong and the Big 5 was great.”
The Quakers opened the 25-team 1971 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament with a 70-65 victory over Duquesne, followed by a 79-64 defeat of South Carolina.
Penn was matched up with a familiar foe in the East Regional Final: a talented Villanova team whom the Quakers had beaten 78-70 earlier in the season, and three straight times overall.
Alas, it was not to be. Penn shot 29 percent from the field versus Villanova’s 61 percent, and the Quakers were defeated 90-47. No Penn player scored in double figures.
Bilsky, who still pains from the loss and says he’s reminded of it quite often, says the game “will live in infamy.”
“From a standpoint of drawing an opponent in the Final 8, Villanova was probably the last team you’d want to play because it’s just hard to beat a quality team so often,” Bilsky says. “But that doesn’t really explain why the score was what it was. No one will ever understand that. I’ve talked to Villanova players many times since that time and they couldn’t understand what was going on and why it happened.
“It’s the nature of sports; it can happen,” he continues. “Certainly I think everybody on that team and a lot of people in the country felt that that Penn team could have very easily won the national championship, but you have to win every game to do that.” (Villanova later vacated the victory after it was determined that one of their players was ineligible.)
The ’70-71 team finished the season ranked No. 3 in the nation, behind national champion UCLA and Marquette. Over a two-year period, Penn went 51-1 in regular season play, the lone loss being an 85-88 loss to Purdue in 1969.
Half a dozen or more of the players on the ’70-71 team went on to play professionally in the NBA, ABA, or overseas. Bilsky played for a year in Israel; Bob Morse had an illustrious career playing in Italy; Phil Hankinson, David “Corky” Calhoun, and Dave Wohl were drafted into the NBA.
“It was a smart team that played good basketball, but I think people who were familiar with the team also recognized that it had a lot of talent as well,” Bilsky says.
Harter, Wohl, Calhoun, Morse, Hankinson, and Bilsky are already in the Big 5 Hall of Fame as individuals. The team will be inducted as part of the Big 5’s annual banquet on April 11 at the Palestra.
Bilsky says the Big 5 ADs will also determine a proper milestone year to induct women’s basketball teams into the Hall of Fame.