With two home victories last week, the Owls pushed their winning streak to a season-high seven games and stand alone in third place in the conference. They now face their last road test of the season – all with Selection Sunday less than a month away.
By following up a 16-point drubbing against Cincinnati on Tuesday, with an 11-point win against East Carolina on Saturday, Temple (19-7, 10-3 American Athletic Conference) is poised to make an NCAA appearance after not having its named called for the first time in seven years last season.
The team’s most recent win against ECU came in a trap-game situation. The contest against the sub-.500 Pirates fell in between the Owls’ biggest conference win of the season, and a road trip against the top two teams in The American. With ECU’s RPI of 229, a loss would have been Temple’s worst of the season, and a black mark on its resume for an at-large selection.
“We just try to do a good job of going into a game and not really worrying about what we did the previous game,” senior guard Will Cummings said after the Cincinnati game on Feb. 10. “Taking the same importance into each game. We beat Cincinnati and that’s a big game, but then we have to come in and take care of [ECU] because if we lose, it’s a bad loss. If we want to accomplish our goals, we need to take care of the lower teams in the conference and the bigger teams.”
Temple now sets its sights on an upcoming road trip to Southern Methodist and Tulsa, The American’s first and second seeds, respectively. When the Owls played the two teams at home, they squandered a double-digit second-half lead in both games to find themselves in the loss column. This without the services of their leading scorer and point guard, Cummings.
The senior suffered a left-leg muscle strain against Tulsa and was limited to 14 minutes. In the next game against SMU, he played 27 minutes, but scored a season-low one point. SMU coach Larry Brown said he felt bad for Cummings, because he could tell he wasn’t healthy.
Now the team has a chance for redemption.
“Everything happens for a reason,” junior forward Jaylen Bond said. “If we had [Cummings], we would have competed a lot better in the games.”
The team is also expected to get back its lone freshman, forward Obi Enechionyia. After suffering a right-ankle sprain in practice, he missed the Owls’ last three games. Enechionyia has been the Owls’ most productive post player off the bench, and will be expected to contribute in stopping SMU forward Markus Kennedy, who scored 21 points against Temple in the prior meeting.
“[Enechionyia] could have played had we needed him today,” coach Fran Dunphy said following the ECU game. “There was no reason to push it. We are going to need him on Thursday and Sunday and hopefully that extra rest will be good for him.”
While the team said it is taking each game one at a time, the big picture is that Temple responded to three straight conference wins with a seven-game winning streak. If Temple is successful on its road trip, its winning streak since Jan. 22 will match its win total from last season. In addition, contingent on the result of other conference games, the Owls could reclaim possession of first place in the conference.
“We know how good these two teams are and we have to play our best basketball in order to win the game,” Dunphy said. “And that’s all we are thinking about.”
Temple is currently projected for a No. 10 seed in the midwest region of the NCAA tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
Dunphy, though, said he doesn’t focus on the projections and that he didn’t want his players to mention the NCAA tournament, saying, “If they do, I will lose my mind.”
When asked what his goals were on the upcoming road trip, Cummings’ answer was clear.
“Two wins,” he said.
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ibrahimjacobs