Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This piece is one of a series of six that the CoBL staff is putting together on how the 2020-21 season went for each of the City 6 and how the future’s shaping up. Links to the rest of the series will go here as they’re published: Drexel | La Salle | Penn | Saint Joseph’s | Temple | Villanova)
Temple’s been a team searching for an identity for some time now, not what fans of a program with the fifth-most wins in Division I history are used to. The Owls’ faithful have high hopes in Aaron McKie, the former Temple great and Sixers standout who’s now two years into his tenure, but came into 2021-22 hoping to see some signs of optimism around a program that had won 20 games once in the last four years.
A young roster and plenty of new faces meant expectations were low for the Owls heading into the 2020-21 season, though the potential of some of those new faces meant Temple was an intriguing squad to watch nonetheless. Read ahead to see how it went.
Season in Brief
Jake Forrester (above, last season) took a strong step forward in his second year with the Owls. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
A COVID pause cost Temple its first few games of the season, so it wasn’t until Dec. 19 that the Owls finally tipped off, and they got all of one non-league game (a 72-60 win over NJIT) to get ready for American Athletic Conference play. It didn’t help that before the season even began, the Owls lost one of their most promising freshmen, Wildwood Catholic (N.J.) product Jahlil White, to a torn meniscus, which sidelined him just long enough to miss the competitive slate.
Once the AAC slate got going, the Owls found themselves up against it. Two matchups against eventual Final Four squad Houston amongst their first six games, and two others against a borderline top-25 squad in SMU were four early losses, though there were wins against UCF, Tulane and Tulsa to keep them at 4-4 overall (3-4 AAC near the end of January.).
Then the youth showed: Temple lost its next six to fall out of contention for a postseason bid, taking a 17-point home defeat from Tulane before losing by three, three, two, six and seven in the following five. In multiple of those games, like a 70-67 Wichita State win on Feb. 7, Temple was either tied or had the lead within the final five minutes, but couldn’t close games out.
How it Ended
Temple concluded its season with three straight games against South Florida: twice in the regular season, losing at home (83-76) and winning at USF (65-47) on Feb. 21 and 24, then waited two weeks (thanks to a pair of cancelled games) before a 73-71 loss to the Bulls in the AAC tournament on March 11.
Most Valuable Player: The biggest reason for optimism about the potential of Temple hoops to move up in the AAC in the near future lies in its youth, and that starts with Jeremiah Williams. The 6-foot-5 point guard out of Simeon (Ill.), Williams started from Day One, leading the Owls in minutes played (32.6/game) and assists (4.1/game), averaging 9.3 ppg (t-3rd on team) and 3.6 rpg while shooting 43.4% from the floor. He was 7th in the AAC in assists per game, and No. 3 in assist:turnover ratio (2.2:1).
Most Improved: There were only three returning members of the Temple rotation from the 2019-20 season, so there wasn’t a ton of competition for this honor on the Owls, but of the three, Jake Forrester took a noticeable step forward from his first year on North Broad. The bouncy 6-8, 220-pound forward, who played his first season of college ball at Indiana, averaged 7.5 ppg and 3.8 rpg in 26 games (16 starts) as a sophomore but upped that to 9.3 ppg and 6.4 rpg in starting all 16 games this year despite only seeing his minutes go from 17.2/game to 21.4. Forrester also was more efficient from the floor and much more efficient from the line, going from 49.3% on his free throws (34-of-69) to 66.7% (38-of-57).
Watch Out For: When he was still in his high school days at Roselle Catholic (N.J.), Khalif Battle was a four-star, top-100 recruit considered one of the best players in the Garden State. He had a quiet freshman year at Butler (3.0 ppg) and came to Temple last year, where the raw numbers in his first season in Cherry & White weren’t bad, especially considering he missed the first five games of the season. His statline was 15.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, and 2.4 apg, though he only shot 34.9% overall and 31.5% from three. But he ended the season on a tear, averaging 20.8 ppg and shooting 42.1% overall/40.% from 3-point range over his final five.
Don’t Forget About: Damian Dunn. The 6-5 combo guard from North Carolina has already been on campus two years, though a foot injury kept him on the sideline for all but one game in 2019-20. He appeared in 13 games this past season, starting 12 before injuring his knee against Cincinnati on Feb. 12, and came off the bench in the season finale. Dunn averaged 13.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg and 2.2 apg; if he can improve his 3-point shooting (5-of-27, 18.5%), he could help make Temple’s perimeter truly a multi-headed threat moving forward.
Maybe Next Year: An athletic 6-8 forward who spent his first two years at Southwest Missouri State, Sage Tolbert was supposed to bring some much-needed interior presence to the Temple frontcourt after averaging 9.6 ppg and 7.0 rpg as a sophomore at SEMU. But a knee injury kept him off the court for every game except the conference tournament game against South Florida, when he played eight minutes and went scoreless with three boards. If Tolbert is going to be the type of player who can team up with Forrester to give Temple a real boost on the glass, we’ll have to wait until this winter to find out.
Arashma Parks (above, last season) will give Temple extra depth at the '4' next season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
16.0: The Temple defense was actually pretty good this year; KenPom had them at an adjusted defensive efficiency of .988 points per possession allowed, which was 110th in the country, better than average. But they were one of the worst at forcing turnovers, doing so on only 16% of opposing possessions, which was 318th in the country. Because of this, they were 302nd out of the 340 qualifying teams this past season in turnover ratio, -2.4/game. Those couple possessions meant the difference between wins and losses on several occasions.
43.8: In addition to their struggles defensively, the Owls were also one of the worst teams in the country from inside the arc, making just 43.8% of their 2-point attempts against Division I competition, 332nd in the country per KenPom. Aside from Forrester (55-of-97, 56.7%), no Temple player who took more than 15 shots from inside the arc made more than half, and both Dunn (36.9%) and Battle (38.4%) made fewer than 40% while taking the first and fourth most 2-point shots on the team, respectively.
61.5: One thing Temple did better than almost anybody else this season was share the ball, as they got assists on 61.5% of their buckets according to KenPom, which was 11th-best in the country and the program’s best since doing so on 62.3% of buckets in 2008-09 when Semaj Inge was a senior and Juan Fernandez a freshman. Four different players averaged more than two assists per game, and their top three (Williams, Battle and Dunn) should be together a few more years.
Several of Temple’s seniors are taking advantage of their extra year of eligibility, but not with the Owls. A pair of 6-7 wing forwards who both played in exactly 105 games during their Temple careers, J.P. Moorman II (7.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg in 2020-21) and Dre Perry (7.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg) were never able to fully realize their potential in Cherry & White, though they were both significant members of the rotation for all four years; Moorman will finish out at UC Riverside while Perry will play for former Temple assistant Dwayne Killings at Albany. Also gone is Brendan Barry, who averaged 6.9 ppg and shot 45.3% from 3-point range in his only season at Temple; the former Dartmouth guard has yet to announce a landing spot.
McKie and his staff snagged one incoming transfer, with size: former Wake Forest post Emmanuel Okpomo. The 6-10 center from Nigeria, who played at legendary Oak Hill Academy (Va.), comes to North Broad after one year at Wake, where he played in 14 games (one start), averaging 1.1 ppg and 1.7 rpg.
The addition of Okpomo gives Temple a true ‘5’ who can compete with some of the other 7-footers in the AAC, and they’re set at the ‘4’ with Forrester, Tolbert and Jourdain, as well as fourth-year redshirt sophomore Arashma Parks. Incoming 6-8 freshman Zach Hicks and second-year 6-6 freshman Quincy Ademokoya give them a couple true ‘3’s, while Battle, Williams, Dunn, White and incoming freshman Hysier Miller give them plenty of guard depth.
So for Temple, the 2022 class has to focus on getting an impact player in the front court. Temple hasn’t had a high-impact interior player since Lavoy Allen, and he hasn’t been in college for a decade; the closest thing since was Jaylen Bond, who averaged 10.3 ppg/8.5 rpg during his senior year in 2015-16. The Owls don’t need a dominant 7-footer, but they need someone at the ‘4’ or ‘5’ who can be a true double-double threat on a nightly-basis and also be a primary offensive option to take some pressure off the guards.
The performance of the freshmen this year, and the impressive seasons Miller had as a senior at Neumann-Goretti (Pa.) and Hicks had at Camden Catholic (N.J.), lead one to believe there’s still a lot to look forward to with the group McKie has, but at some point the potential has to start becoming production. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more growing pains in 2021-22, and if everything goes right they should be set up to really compete in 2022-23.