Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
There might not be a Division I men’s team in the country that’s had a stranger season than Temple.
Jahlil White (above) and Temple are 8-2 in AAC play after an up-and-down non-conference slate. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
The Owls have bounced back and forth between brilliant and head-scratching over the last three months, beating the likes of Villanova and Rutgers while losing home games to Wagner and Maryland-Eastern Shore, all in the non-league slate. They limped into American Athletic Conference play with a 6-7 overall record, a team that was supposed to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth under fourth-year coach Aaron McKie looking like it had instead taken a step backwards.
But AAC play has seen a resurgence from Temple, which, through injuries and rotation changes, has ground out win after win, eight in its first 10 league games, to keep those March Madness hopes still hanging around.
The biggest eye-opener came not this past weekend but the one before it, when Temple went down to No. 1 Houston and, despite only scoring one point in the final six-plus minutes, held on to beat the Cougars 56-55.
They followed that up with a pair of overtime wins against schools from the Sunshine State, 79-76 over South Florida at home and then 77-70 over Central Florida on the road. That has them at 14-9 overall and 8-2 in the AAC, still only No. 115 in the NET rankings, not quite on the NCAA Tournament bubble…yet.
All of that despite a rotation that’s seen all 10 players who’ve seen a minute for the Owls this season having started at least one game, eight of them starting at least eight contests. Only sophomores Zach Hicks (8.8 ppg) and Hysier Miller (8.4 ppg) have started all 23 games this season.
McKie’s settled into a rotation that has its top two scorers — Khalif Battle (17.7 ppg) and Damian Dunn (14.9 ppg) — coming off the bench, sophomore wing Jahlil White (5.4 rpg) and sophomore forward Nick Jourdain (6.3 ppg) moving into the lineup to give them more of a defensive-minded look at the outset.
Despite the ugly early-season losses and rotation changes, they’re playing the most meaningful February games they’ve played since 2019, the last year of Fran Dunphy’s tenure, and it won’t take too many victories for those March whispers to start.
“The good thing about it,” McKie said, “is you’re in a conversation late in the season. We’re at the top of the conference, we’ll have an opportunity to play for first [...] what better situation do you want?
“It’s great energy for us as a team, great energy for our fanbase, and it should be a good one.”
The “good one” McKie referred to is a major opportunity for the Owls this Sunday, as they’ll host the same Houston squad they beat two weeks prior, the No. 3-ranked Cougars (20-2, 8-1) the only team ahead of them in the AAC standings.
It’s an opportunity they can’t afford to waste.
“Probably the biggest one of our season so far,” Dunn agreed, “just to validate everything we’ve been doing, and to put a stamp on how good we are.
“Having the opportunity to knock off a top-10 team two times in a row in the matter of 10 days is a big opportunity for us, [...] as long as we prepare the right way, come in and have good hard practice days, we’ll be fine.”
Khalif Battle (above) is averaging 16.5 ppg in his 10 games off the bench. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
Temple’s win over Houston on Jan. 22 was one of the 50 least likely in college hoops so far, according to hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy, who had the Owls with only a 2.4% chance to win in the early minutes, Houston the No. 1 squad in his rankings; Temple went from 130 to 114 after the win, and currently stands at 107. KenPom gives the Owls a 15% chance to win the rematch, but they have reason to be optimistic.
Sophomore Jamille Reynolds, a 6-11 post and the team’s best offensive option at the ‘5,’ missed 10 straight games with a thumb injury but has been back for the last two, scoring 16 points with five rebounds in 21 minutes of the UCF win. McKie said that Reynolds is still working on getting his conditioning back, but there’s no doubt his presence gives the Cougars another wrinkle to worry about.
“[He provides] that interior offensive presence that you have to really concentrate on,” McKie said. “Sometimes you can throw blind passes because he’s athletic enough to go up and get it, but he also can go up and score it. Just knowing Houston and what they do, they try to take those guys out of the game with double teams and stuff, but he’s somebody that’s going to be on the board for them, and we’ll see how we can use him to help us offensively.”
Temple also has a full week to prepare for Houston, while the Cougars have a trip to Wichita State on Thursday before coming to Temple. Whether or not that’s too much time off for a team playing its best ball of the season is up for debate.
“You certainly can use that break, especially in the middle of your conference schedule, but we’ve been getting better, so you want to stay in that rhythm,” McKie said. “I know our guys needed a physical break, a lot of minutes that our heavy-minute guys were getting, they needed a physical break, sometimes that leads to needing a mental break as well.
“I would probably prefer to go ahead and play right away, but it’s extra days of repetition, preparation, competition,” Dunn said. “We came in today, had a good practice today, coming out here, getting a sweat in, playing defense, and preparing for a big one on Sunday.”
Temple knows it isn’t likely to beat Houston in a scoring contest, the Cougars’ defense rated No. 3 in the country on KenPom, second in effective field goal percentage (41.3%), third in 3-point percentage (26.8%) and tops in block percentage (18.0%), averaging 5 stuffs per game.
Instead, it’s going to be about defending the way the Owls did the first time, holding the Cougars to 19-of-56 (33.9%) from the floor, making Marcus Sasser, Jarace Walker and Jamal Shead shoot a combined 11-of-39. But they want to improve on their turnovers (13) and on the glass, as they got out-rebounded 39-33 the first time around.
“Still limit our turnovers, I know they weren’t as many as I feel like but still limiting those and just finishing plays,” Dunn said. “I thought we did let up a little bit, some possessions we took off, letting them get offensive rebounds. I feel like if we play defense the way we know how to and just finish plays with rebounds, I know we’ll be fine.”
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