Sports

Keys to tournament run for Owls

The Owls’ NCAA tournament chances hinge on three vital aspects of their play.

Ibrahim JacobsFollowing a win against Connecticut to close out the regular season, one thing became very clear for the Owls – they know what they need to do to win, it’s just a matter of doing it.

Temple forced turnovers, played lockdown defense in the second half, and didn’t shoot 3-pointers with reckless abandonment. The Owls maintained their position on the cusp of the NCAA tournament bubble as a result. The ultimatum, though, is that the Owls aren’t moving off it without a conference-tournament run.

The path to a postseason return has been laid out during the Owls’ 22-9 campaign. Temple most likely needs at least one conference win to secure an NCAA tournament berth. Much like the Owls’ season, success comes in three.

Show up for big games
The primary stain on Temple’s resume is proving it can beat a good team in a mediocre conference. The American Athletic Conference is projected to send as many teams dancing (three) as the Mountain West, Pac-12 and Atlantic 10 conferences.

While Temple has claimed the fourth seed in the conference, its 13-0 record against the bottom seven schools in the conference has helped inflate its record. A 1-5 mark against The American’s Top 3 teams leaves much to be desired.

When Temple has faced the team with the best record in the conference this season, which they did in games against Tulsa and SMU at home, it did so while enjoying winning streaks of six and seven games, respectively. In both instances, confidence was at an all-time high followed by two underwhelming losses.

After outscoring defending national champion UConn 43-26 in the second half on senior day, the Owls are once again riding a high entering a competition with a conference opponent. A rematch with Memphis in the quarterfinal of the conference tournament Friday is looming, however. If the Owls start slow – or not at all – they might get run out of the XL Center in Connecticut, and the NCAA tournament.

Decisive shot selection
The Owls finished the season a startling second in the conference in 3-point attempts, and dead last in shooting percentage from long range. Conventional logic would dictate that you slow the shots from deep down, but the Owls tend to shoot more when facing better competition.

In the team’s five conference losses, they attempted more than 20 shots from distance four times, yet took 20 or fewer threes in all four of its conference wins against teams above .500. When facing higher-caliber opponents, the Owls don’t shoot selectively – they shoot relentlessly.

The shots also minimize Temple’s competitive advantage. Long shots create long rebounds. With junior forward Jaylen Bond leading the conference in offensive rebounding, shooting 3-pointers puts the ball out of his reach.

Senior sharpshooter Jesse Morgan and junior guard Quenton DeCosey are the only Owls with a claim to shoot the triple, as they make them consistently enough to provide the firepower to keep teams honest and out of a zone defense. Without the pair’s contributions, Temple shoots 27 percent from long range.

Consistent performances
Senior guard Will Cummings is going to push the ball and score at the rim and the foul line. Morgan will knock down long-range buckets. Bond will secure rebounds. But the other contributions from the roster’s seven other players in coach Fran Dunphy’s regular rotation are often a mystery.

The biggest culprit is DeCosey. He possesses the ability to lead the team in rebounding while also posting double-digit point totals, as he has done in each of the last three Temple wins. He also has the ability to disappear for weeks at a time, including a six-game stretch last month in which he never eclipsed 10 points. A confident DeCosey is a productive DeCosey, and a legitimate scoring threat to take pressure off Cummings and Morgan.

Freshman forward Obi Enechionyia has far exceeded expectations in his first year under Dunphy’s tutelage. Arguably the team’s best athlete, Enechionyia is tied for the team lead in blocks and is the lone legitimate scoring threat off the bench. However, he missed three games due to an ankle injury and averages four fouls per game in Temple’s conference losses. If he can limit the foul trouble he creates for himself and stay in games, Temple’s interior will be strengthened.

If the team can learn from past mistakes and change the way it plays against the conference’s top competition, the NCAA’s field of 68 will be put on notice. If not, the impressive one-season turnaround will come up just short.

Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at ibrahim.jacobs@temple.edu or on Twitter @ibrahimjacobs.

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