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McKie has work cut out for him in second year at Temple

10/19/2020, 3:30pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Temple head coach Aaron McKie (above) has a large rebuilding effort underway in his second season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

With a program that had to replace four of its top five scorers from last season, and with seven new faces on the roster, Temple could have used some extra practices this summer to help a young squad get itself figured out.

Instead, it got a pandemic shutdown.

“You can’t really build chemistry from a Zoom call, if I’m being honest,” Owls senior forward J.P. Moorman II said Wednesday on a video call with the media. “We tried to do what we could, but we were on Zoom looking at each other.

“It’s been interesting,” the 6-foot-7 wing forward from Greensboro, N.C. added. “Nothing we can do, can’t complain about it, but we’ve got to work with what we’ve got.”

“We had our summer taken away from us, and that’s when the guys get familiar with one another,” second-year head coach Aaron McKie said. “We get a chance to take them through some skills and drills, do some different things and see how they respond to different things, so that was pretty much taken away from us.”

Moorman said it wasn’t until the first day of August that he finally got to meet several of his new teammates, that the Owls were finally all in Philadelphia together. Since then, they’ve progressed from skill work in small groups to five-on-five full-court action, with regular coronavirus testing to make sure they avoid any breakouts. 

The goal is to improve on a 14-17 (6-12 American Athletic) result from a year ago, a season that saw Temple struggle down the stretch of individual games as well as the entire season, losing six of their final seven regular-season games before COVID cancelled the AAC tournament. That just won’t cut it for a coach who played for John Chaney during the program’s golden years, when the Owls made every NCAA Tournament except one between 1983-84 and 2000-01. That run included five Elite 8 appearances, but the program hasn’t been back to the second weekend of March Madness since.

“What I’ve always known as a player and as a coach, is [that] consistency is important,” said McKie, who played for 15 seasons in the NBA —  eight with the Sixers — after getting drafted 17th overall in the 1994 NBA Draft. “You can’t have high highs and low lows, you want to stay somewhere in the middle ground, because it’s a long year. I thought we got off to a good start, solid start, [then] we faced some adversity and things changed.”

McKie has his work cut out for him on a team that lacks experience and role definition, with 70% of its minutes and 73% of its scoring having departed the program through graduation, transfer, or turning professional. 

J.P. Moorman II (above) is one of two 6-7 senior wing forwards who will lead the Owls this season, along with Dre Perry. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Moorman, who averaged 5.8 ppg in 26.8 minutes last year, is one of three returning Owls with significant playing experience, alongside fellow senior De’Vondre Perry (6.2 ppg/2.7 rpg) and junior forward Jake Forrester (7.5 ppg/3.8 rpg). Redshirt sophomore forward Arashma Parks, who played about 200 total minutes last season and averaged 2.5 points in 22 appearances, is the only other player on the roster whose collegiate experience could be described as being anywhere near “significant.”

Last year’s leading scorer, Quinton Rose (16.4 ppg/3.5 apg) finished his eligibility, as did Alani Moore II (8.4 ppg). Junior guard Nate Pierre-Louis (10.9 ppg) turned pro, while Monty Scott (7.2 ppg) transferred to Portland State for his final year of eligibility. 

The rest of Temple’s 2020-21 rotation mostly fits into one of two categories: freshman, or transfer in an unclear situation.

There are four college rookies on the roster: 6-5 guard Jeremiah Williams (Chicago, Ill./Simeon), 6-6 guard Quincy Ademokoya (Bloomington, Ill./Norcross HS, Ga.), 6-7 guard Jahlil White (Whitesboro, N.J./Wildwood Catholic), and 6-8 forward Nick Jourdain (Clifton, N.J./Immaculate Conception). They’re joined in the freshman class by 6-5 redshirt Damien Dunn, who played 10 minutes in one game last year thanks to a foot injury. 

How much they’re going to have to play depends on the status of three others: 6-8 junior forward Sage Tolbert, a transfer from Southeast Missouri State; 6-5 sophomore guard Khalif Battle, who transferred from Butler; and 6-3 point guard Tai Strickland, who transferred from Wisconsin.

Strickland, who transferred in the 2019 offseason, is now eligible but had surgery on an injured right shoulder in August; McKie said Strickland was “hopefully” going to start going through contact drills “in the next month or so.” Tolbert and Battle, who both transferred in this offseason, will have to sit this season out due to NCAA regulations unless the Owls can secure a transfer waiver for either or both; McKie said a waiver for Tolbert, who averaged 9.6 ppg and 7.0 rpg as a sophomore at SEMO,  was something they “could potentially take a look at” but that they were still looking at the interior player as a sit-one, play-two situation.

If it is the freshman who are going to be thrust into big minutes right away, Moorman seems encouraged by their abilities.

“I love what all of our freshmen bring, they bring something different,” Moorman said. “I think J-Will [Jeremiah Williams] is going to be a really good point guard for us, real cerebral guy. Jahlil is the super-long athlete and can do some special things with his frame. Nick has a lot more guard skills than we all thought, and he’s a super-good athlete, and Quincy’s shooting the lights out of the ball. So all of our freshmen do some really good things, I’m excited to play with those guys and watch them learn and grow.”

There’s no doubt that the 2020 group is going to be a crucial class for McKie’s success going forward, and his ability to establish the Temple program as one in his image. The Owls were typically good but rarely great during the Fran Dunphy era (2006-19), partly due to a reconferencing shuffle that took them from being a perennial power in the comfortable Atlantic 10 to being just another program in the geographically mismatched AAC, and the loss of the identity that the Owls had developed and honed under Chaney for being a intense program that thrived off its defense and its Philly toughness. 

The Owls held their first practice of the 2020-21 season Wednesday, six weeks ahead of the season’s scheduled opening Nov. 25. But unlike most years, where teams have their schedules set and released weeks if not months in advance of the beginning of practice, COVID-19 has forced all of college hoops to remake their schedules. 

So for now, the Owls are preparing for a to-be-determined opening opponent, but there’s a lot of work to get done before then. They’ll need to figure out who can hit shots, who can rebound, who can defend. 

And, most importantly, how to work together.

“I feel we need more time to keep connecting and keep getting comfortable with one another,” Moorman said. “It won’t happen overnight, in a week, month, whatever. It’s just going to happen over time, we’ve got to make sure that time happens before our first game.”

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