- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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PHILADELPHIA -- A 10 a.m. start time requires a lot of adjustments. Just ask those four Drexel students behind the basket what time they had to get up to apply their blue and gold "ESPN" body paint.
"Around 6:30 a.m.," said one wearily. "6:30, 7 o'clock, sometime like that."
The reason for the ritual time-shifting was that the season-opening city game between Drexel and Penn was slotted into the Worldwide Leader's 24-hour College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. As day broke over the city, fans cleaned out the free donuts and coffee set out on tables outside Drexel's gym, while viewers at home who were expecting a "SportsCenter" repeat were treated to live breakfast basketball. Before noon, the homestanding Dragons were 1-0 after a 66-64 win.
While the fans may have struggled with the early tip-off, the early start didn't faze Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint, who likes to make sure his players are morning people too.
"We have a 6:30 a.m. practice at least once every week," said Flint afterwards with a shrug. "So this is 'same old, same old.'"
Nearly everything else about the game was a brand-new situation. In the 87 years Penn and Drexel have faced off in basketball, the Quakers had never played a road game at Drexel before Tuesday morning. The "Battle of 33rd Street," as the commemorative T-shirts read, connected the adjacent West Philadelphia campuses. Penn's Palestra, the venerable hoops cathedral that served as the site of the first NCAA title game in 1939, is just three short blocks from the Daskalakis Athletic Center, a hangar-like building with plastic collapsible bleachers that will see its final games before the decade is out.
"I'm used to this kind of atmosphere; it's similar to the high school gyms I've played in," said Penn senior guard Kevin Egee, before catching himself. "I'm not saying this is a high school gym, but it's similar to some of those."
Before a national TV audience, Drexel made Penn pay for any hubris, unintended or otherwise. The game was close for seven minutes, before senior Dragons guard Scott Rodgers keyed a five-point run to build a 17-11 lead, punctuated by a hard, attacking drive through the lane. Drexel never trailed again, and every time Penn mounted a rally, the Dragons' superior vertical size and longer arms served to fend off every challenge.
But Drexel had trouble converting both ends of a pair of free throws down the stretch, allowing Penn to come perilously close to stealing a win from its neighbors. An Egee 3 with 14 seconds left drew the Quakers to within two points at 65-63, and after Rodgers missed one of his two free throws seconds later, Penn was in position to tie with a trey. Freshman guard Zack Rosen leaned in on a long-bomb attempt with two seconds left, drawing a three-shot foul. But when Rosen missed the first, the packed house of yellow-clad fans erupted, celebrating the virtually assured win.
The Dragons' victory meant more than the unofficial plastic trophy with a "33rd Street" signpost glued onto it. It was an important mark of respect for a program that has been Division I since the 1973-74 season, a mere fraction of the time the city has been fought over by the "Big 5," which consists of Penn, Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's and Temple. In a city where the annual Big 5 round-robin championship is considered just as important as an NCAA bid (if not more so), Drexel has been less of a little brother and more a distant cousin.
Drexel has participated in four of the past six NITs. But the school has not been to the Big Dance since 1996, when Malik Rose helped the Dragons overcome Memphis and move on to the Round of 32. That may seem like forever in college basketball time, but consider that the last time a Big 5 opponent came calling had been three years earlier than that, when Saint Joe's beat the Dragons during the 1992-93 season, in what was then known as the Physical Education Center.
"I appreciate everything and everyone that went into putting this game together," said Flint after the game. "But I hope people understand that we still can't get people to play here. We're not going to play these teams if they're not going to play in this building. We'll go play someone else."
So don't expect the Big 5 to evolve into the City 6 anytime soon. Yet for one strange morning in November, Drexel was Philadelphia's hoops focal point, and its students had a great excuse to miss class. It's rare when college basketball happens at the exact same time as college (a fan in the small Penn contingent held a sign that read, "Prof. Roberts -- If you see this, I swear I'm still sick"), but today, face paint was just as valid an excuse as a doctor's note.
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.