In their last meeting at a sold-out Hagan Arena in 2011, St. Joe's rolled Villanova, 74-58. The No. 14 Wildcats visit Hawk Hill for only the second time this Saturday night. (USA Today Images)
Save for a couple of players stretching, Hagan Arena was quiet and empty when a tour guide walked into the Saint Joseph’s University gym Thursday afternoon with a herd of high school students and parents in tow.
The tour guide paused, turned toward the center of the arena and tried to explain how much the campus is buzzing with excitement as the Hawks prepare to host No. 14 Villanova in the latest chapter of the storied rivalry between the neighboring Big 5 programs.
But for anyone who doesn’t follow Philly hoops, it’s hard to envision how loud and crazy Hagan Arena will become this Saturday at 6 p.m. when, for just the second time ever, the cozy, 4,200-seat gym will play host to a Villanova-St. Joe’s clash.
“I think getting tickets for this game is harder than getting tickets for the Super Bowl,” St. Joe’s senior forward Halil Kanacevic said before Thursday’s practice. “I’ve literally got people calling me every day. I can’t help them out. I wish I could. I can’t even get some of my family members tickets.”
For decades, St. Joe’s hosted all of its home games against Villanova at the roomier Palestra, before moving the rivalry game to its own campus in 2011. It was a move that immediately paid big dividends as St. Joe’s cruised to a 74-58 win in front of a standing room-only crowd at Hagan two years ago.
“It was a top-five crazy atmosphere I’ve played in,” Kanacevic said. “It was crazy. They said it was 4,200 people but it was definitely more than 4,200. I think they did a great job using the whole arena.”
Kanacevic knows better than most how important a home-court advantage can be when these two heated rivals meet. Last season, with the game shifting back to the Pavilion, Kanacevic famously gave the middle finger to Villanova fans before making a couple of critical mistakes in the final minutes of a 65-61 St. Joe’s loss.
But the senior forward said the only loss he’s now thinking about is Wednesday’s 77-69 setback to Temple in the Hawks’ Big 5 opener (see story).
“We’re coming off a loss, so that’s bothersome already,” Kanacevic said. “And then factor in they’re a ranked team coming into our gym. And then you factor in that it’s Villanova. So I don’t think you really need to say much about it.”
The fact that Villanova (8-0, 1-0 Big 5) is unbeaten and nationally ranked certainly adds a different element to the game. When the Wildcats came to Hagan two years ago, they were in the midst of an ugly 19-loss season, while St. Joe’s was a team on the rise. Former ’Nova star forward Mouphtaou Yarou was also batting an injury in that game and managed to play only 11 minutes.
“It seemed tougher because we didn’t play well at all,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said, shortly after the Wildcats beat Penn in their Big 5 opener Wednesday. “And actually they were very good, too. So I don’t know if it’s Hagan or St. Joe’s.”
At the same time, Wright acknowledged the dangers -- as well as the uniqueness -- of entering such an intimate and hostile gym.
“Playing in there is wild,” the Villanova coach said. “There aren’t many places like that left anymore where they’re right on top of you and right behind the bench. The Palestra is one of those places.”
The home crowd might be enough to push the Hawks to a win in a series that’s been mostly dominated by Villanova, which holds an all-time 45-25 edge vs. the Hawks. As it is, St. Joe’s (4-3, 0-1) boasts a talented and experienced team led by senior standouts Langston Galloway (18.1 ppg), Ronald Roberts (17.7 ppg) and Kanacevic (8.6 ppg).
Villanova has been paced by James Bell and JayVaughn Pinkston, both of whom are averaging 16.6 points per contest.
“We play these guys pretty much year-round,” Galloway said. “We play them during the season and in the summertime, so it’s always big.
“We both know what each other can do. And we’re going to go out there and figure out a way to beat them.”
Galloway poured in a game-high 24 points against Temple on Wednesday but, like the rest of his teammates, was upset that St. Joe’s dropped its Big 5 opener to a less-experienced Owls squad. Now, the Hawks play another city game just three days later -- a unique opportunity they don’t want to squander.
“It’s a little weird, honestly,” Kanacevic said of playing two Big 5 games in the same week. “It’s not something I’ve experienced since I’ve been here. It’s something new, but we’ve got to deal with it.”
After coasting past Penn on Wednesday, Villanova will also play its second city series contest of the week. But for the Wildcats, no other Big 5 game compares to playing St. Joe’s.
“For me growing up in Philadelphia, it’s an honor being a part of the game,” Wright said. “I’ve watched this game since I was a little kid. There’s always hype around it but once the game starts, it’s a game. It’s a battle. It’s a Big 5 game.
“This game is as intense as they get.”