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Cathedral Classic makes its debut with Philly-heavy field

11/25/2022, 9:30pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

It was shortly after Penn’s men’s basketball team got back from a three-game trip to South Carolina early last season that Josh LaRosa, the Quakers’ Associate Athletics Director for Internal Operations, contacted his colleague, Joe Haughey, the assistant AD for business development, with a question:

Why were the Quakers traveling to other program’s early-season events, when they could be hosting their own? 

With the Palestra steaming towards its 100th anniversary, to be celebrated the entire 2026-27 season — the gym’s first official game was on Jan. 1, 1927, when Penn hosted Yale in front of more than 9,000 curious fans — the Quakers’ administration had been planning on how best to showcase the building affectionately known as the Cathedral of College Basketball.

Steve Donahue (above) and Penn are hosting the inaugural Cathedral Classic this weekend. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL

“We have been traveling with our team,” Haughey said, “and it had been something where we’d go to these different tournaments [and think], the Palestra’s an iconic space — something that makes sense here, how can we do something like that?”

And so the idea that became the Cathedral Classic was born.

The inaugural edition of the four-team event is taking place this weekend at the Palestra; Penn joined by Delaware, Colgate and Hartford for three straight days of doubleheaders, each team playing the other, round-robin style. There will be no official tournament winner or loser, though if someone goes 3-0 on the weekend, they’ll certainly be the de facto champs.

If all goes well, the Cathedral Classic will return each year, at least until that 100th anniversary season, when the Penn administration is sure to go all-out to celebrate.

“When we were here in the 90s, we always talked about getting the Quaker City classic back, and how can we do something nowadays?” Penn coach Steve Donahue said, referring to his years as a Quaker assistant under Fran Dunphy. “Obviously the landscape of college basketball’s changed. For us to be able to celebrate this building, to be able to do it over the next four years, hopefully, I think it’s incredible for us, Penn, and also the Big 5 and the city of Philadelphia.”

It’s a group that came together, according to Haughey, by a mixture of intent and convenience, with Donahue and his staff helping make some connections along the way. Putting together a Multi-Team Event, or MTE, in the span of less than a year was one speed bump; many programs accept MTE invitations a couple years in advance, wanting to lock in their spot in events like the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Phil Knight Invitational, or the Paradise Jam, three of the bigger MTEs, which mostly take place around the Thanksgiving holiday.

(MTEs are popular for college programs due to their function as “exempt” events, which allow programs to play three games that technically count as one towards their maximum number of competitions). 

But in Colgate, Delaware and Hartford, the Penn administration found three programs who not only had the weekend free but also had significant local ties, giving them an extra reason to want to come to the City of Brotherly Love for a holiday weekend.

Matt Langel (above) made his return to the Palestra 12 years after doing so as a Temple assistant. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“The Palestra’s a special building, so anytime you get a chance to do anything in here, it’s pretty cool,” said Colgate head coach Matt Langel, who called the Palestra home for four years as a Penn undergrad (1996-2000) and then again for a couple seasons as a Penn assistant (2004-06). “I hope for Philadelphia basketball fans and the people who are passionate about Philadelphia and know their history, that it’s kind of neat to have some different connections all coming back to the Palestra to play on a weekend.”

Langel isn’t the only one of the visiting head coaches who’d been looking forward to his return. Delaware boss Martin Ingelsby played at Archbishop Carroll and helped the Patriots to the Catholic League title game at the Palestra in 1997, current Blue Hens assistant Bill Phillips on that squad as well.

“I’ve always wanted to coach at the Palestra,” Ingelsby said. “I played here in high school, my dad was a great player at Villanova back in the day, I had stuff in the basement about Big 5 and the Palestra and hanging off the rafter.

“We played at [Duke’s] Cameron [Indoor] last week, play at the Palestra this week, it’s always been a goal of mine to bring Delaware basketball here with all the history and tradition of the Palestra.”

(Hartford had been led by another Philadelphia native, John Gallagher, but Gallagher resigned just ahead of the season, citing alleged misconduct by the Hartford administration in the midst of a transition from Division I to Division III.)

All that familiarity makes for plenty of connections: Donahue was one of Langel’s assistant coaches when Langel was in college; Penn assistant Nat Graham was a senior on the Quakers Langel’s freshman year. Donahue is an O’Hara grad, like Gallagher; Delaware assistant Torrian Jones is a Pennsbury grad. Colgate assistant Camryn Crocker played at Penn; Trey Montgomery, another ‘Gate assistant, was at Penn the last few years. You get the idea.

“I have a long relationship with those guys and I root for their teams wherever they’re coaching. So that part of it [...] you never really enjoy,” Langel said. “Similarly to the Delaware bench; I mean, Martin and I grew up playing against each other, I cheer for them all the time; [...] those kind of things, it’s a little bit strange when you’re playing against people you otherwise root for.”

Martin Ingelsby (above) played in the Palestra as a senior at Archbishop Carroll. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The first game on Friday was Langel’s first as head coach at the Palestra, his first game in Philadelphia since 2015. It’s not that he didn’t want to face his alma mater, he said, but the timing just had never quite worked out. His return wasn’t a happy one; Delaware won a nailbiter, 72-68. Penn beat Hartford 75-55 in the second part of the opening day.

The coaches aren’t the only ones with local ties. Delaware features Jameer Nelson Jr. and Christian Ray, who together led the Haverford School to a PAISAA state title and unbeaten record in 2018-19. Colgate has Jeff Woodward (Methacton) as one of its key contributors, and Alex Capitano (Episcopal Academy) on the roster. Hartford features former La Salle big man Jared Kimbrough, and Penncrest’s Isaiah Rice is on the roster.

“I think it means a lot for them to come back and play well,” Donahue said.

Even after the NCAA Tournament ceased its regular visits to the Palestra, the last March Madness game held there in 1984, Penn has made sure its campus gem stays busy. The biggest amateur hoops games in the city each year, the Philadelphia Catholic League boys and girls’ championships, take place in the Cathedral; Penn State has hosted some big-time matchups there, including an upcoming Big Ten game against Purdue in January. 

Haughey said bringing the NCAA Tournament back to the Palestra has been one goal, but that might be more likely with the women’s tournament than the men’s, which has minimum arena size requirements that the Palestra does not meet. 

“It’s all ideas we’re coming up with,” Haughey said. “What events could we do, in place of a showcase, what could we do for the facility [...] there’s a lot of ideas.”

The 2023 Cathedral Classic is already confirmed, next year’s three visitors still unknown, but with talks progressing, according to Haughey. The goal is to continue growing it over the next three years, perhaps not in size — the four-team, round-robin format is likely to stick — but hopefully in stature, the Penn administration hoping to land some high-level programs who want to experience one of the game’s most storied arenas, the way that Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Roy Williams (Kansas) have done. 

Attendance wasn’t much more than 1,000 fans on Friday, not a surprise given the timing, a day after Thanksgiving and in the middle of the afternoon. The weekend games should draw a little more, especially with Penn’s game against Colgate matching Langel and Donahue on Saturday afternoon. That’s not much of a concern, knowing that many of these events don’t always draw huge crowds; a big-name program could help.

“It’s so hard nowadays because those high-majors play 20 league games and then they play an exempt tournament, and then they have the ACC-Big Ten challenge, it’s hard,” Donahue said. “I think we’re going to get a pretty name team next year to go along, and then each year, try to get, whether it’s a good mid-major or something, that people will say ‘hey, I want to go see that team.”

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