Eastern basketball always had been a hodge-podge. Take Philadelphia. Villanova, LaSalle, Temple, St. Joseph's and Penn called themselves the "Big Five,'' played one another twice a season at the Palestra on Penn's campus, and declared a champion.
The independent nature of Eastern basketball ended through the genius of Dave Gavitt, the main visionary behind the formation of the Big East in 1979.
The original Big East destroyed itself chasing football millions. It has been reimagined nicely over the last decade as a conference based on basketball, and with schools as far west as Creighton in Omaha.
The confusion that remains is minor compared to the pre-Big East days, but there's still a quandary in Division 1 Eastern basketball: Which St. Francis are you talking about?
There's the St. Francis in Loretto, a village in the forests of west central Pennsylvania, where the retired basketball numbers belong to Maurice Stokes, Norm Van Lier and Kevin Porter, and with the nickname "The Red Flash'' since the Great Depression.
There's also a St. Francis in Brooklyn, known as the Terriers, and claiming the oldest college basketball program in New York City, dating to 1896.
The two St. Francis teams have been in the same conference (now named the Northeast) since 1981. To lessen the confusion, the one in Pennsylvania spells out its name in full — Saint Francis University — and its conference companion rebranded itself a few years back as St. Francis Brooklyn.
If you're a young man getting an unlikely shot to start in a D-I basketball game, you would take a trip to either:
- To the small-town woods of Pennsylvania, to play in the Maurice Stokes Athletic Center, and learn both the tragic and heart-warming tale of the great Mo Stokes (search: Stokes/Jack Twyman).
- To participate in what New York Magazine a decade ago listed as one of the "Reasons to Love New York'' in its annual issue — watching a St. Francis hoops game in Brooklyn.
"Is that true? I'll have to tell our players that on the Friday flight,'' St. Thomas coach John Tauer said this week. "Here's what's amazing: We played our opener for the 2018-19 season at Brooklyn College, and we had a practice at St. Francis.
"A half-dozen of our players from that practice … they will be playing for us there on Saturday afternoon.''
I'm a complete sucker for the lore of college basketball. The game comes from very strange roots. I mean, there was period from the late '30s to early '50s where the Gophers wouldn't play Joe Hutton's Hamline Pipers out of fear of getting beat.
Nowhere did the game invade a city's soul more than on the concrete of the five boroughs of New York. My favorite sports book of all-time remains Pete Axthelm's "The City Game (1969-70).'' Axthelm himself was a snapshot of the game's gritty roots — immensely talented, destroyed by a love of drink that took his life at 47.
What is being offered here is envious congratulations to the Tommies' traveling party. They will be playing, and coaching, and watching the city game in tradition-filled locales in two boroughs.
First comes St. Francis Brooklyn, self-proclaimed city basketball pioneers, and then on Monday night, vs. the Fordham Rams in the Bronx.
The St. Francis gym, named for long-ago coach Dan Lynch, goes back to 1971 and holds 1,200. That's ultra-modern compared to Fordham's Rose Hill Gym, dating to 1925. With its large floor space for an arena with 3,200 capacity, it was given the nickname "The Prairie.''
Vince Lombardi, a former Fordham football player, led an attempt to build a new arena in the late 1960s. Then, he died and Rose Hill survived.
As Tauer prepared for this first D-I season, three high-level transfers were anticipated: Jarvis Omersa (Minnesota), Courtney Brown Jr. (Milwaukee) and J'Vonne Hadley (Northeastern). Omersa didn't enroll, Brown isn't playing yet and Hadley switched to Indian Hills, a JUCO power in Iowa.
"We had one of the best teams in Division III last season,'' Tauer said. "If there had been an NCAA tournament, we could've won it. I truly believe that. We played seven games with the pandemic, and won seven.
"The same guys that started for us last season are starting for us now. Plus, the top guys off the bench, along with Ben Nau, a freshman. They came with no idea they would be playing Division I games as seniors, but win or lose, they're loving it.''
Two City Games, and followed in two weeks by a trip West to play Seattle U, Elgin Baylor's team!
What's not to love?