Last time Temple and St. Joseph’s did battle back in mid-January, the Hawks posted a 65-55 win at the Liacouras Center.
However, it was last year that these two teams met at the Palestra, exchanging salvos and leaving fans with a game that could be ranked as one of the great Big Five games of all-time with the Owls eking out a 87-84 win in double overtime.
Tonight another chapter will be added to this city rivalry at the Palestra, a rivalry that until recently had been dominated by the Owls.
This year, while the Owls are dealing with the struggles of developing talent, the Hawks are putting together one of their most successful seasons under coach Phil Martelli, who has beaten his Hall of Fame counterpart, John Chaney, four of the last seven times.
Since losing to the Hawks, the Owls have put together three big road wins in front of hostile crowds against Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure, and Massachusetts. The Owls formula in the three wins consisted of stifling the point guard’s play.
The Ram’s Howard Smith was held scoreless and matched four assists with four turnovers.
Minutemen guard Michael Lasme was limited to three assists and three points, and Marques Green, who is the A-10’s second leading scorer and leader in assists, was held to 3-for-13 shooting and three turnovers.
Consequently, the Bonnies were unable to run their offense as the Owls pressured the ball away from Green.
In an ironic twist, junior point guard sensation Jameer Nelson chose playing for the Hawks over the Owls in a recruiting battle that is having dramatic effects for both schools this season.
The Hawks (17-3, 7-2) are in prime position to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tourney, while the Owls (7-12, 5-4) are in danger of not qualifying for the tournament for the second straight year.
“Somewhere along the lines we’ve got to stop [Delonte] West and Jameer Nelson as best we can,” Chaney said. “I mean if I could, [I would] put handcuffs on them and wouldn’t let them out. I could wish that one of them doesn’t show up for a game. That might help.”
The Owls main focus will be on Nelson and limiting the havoc he creates for opposing teams.
“We’re going to try and get the ball out of his hands, try and focus more on Delonte West,” senior forward Alex Wesby said.
Wesby added that when Nelson begins to take control of a game, he establishes confidence and a rhythm for the rest of the Hawks to feed off of.
In their first meeting this season West and Nelson nearly outscored the Owls, combining for 51 points.
Midway through the second half of that game, Nelson took over and what followed were an array of jumpers, steals and assists as the Hawks walked away in victory.
“They came in here and beat us on our home court. We’re going to be looking to go out and send a message to everybody else,” sophomore forward Hawley Smith said.
“I think it’s going to be a hard fought game. Everybody is going to be out for blood.”
The Owls have only played three games in the last three weeks and seem to benefit from the layoff between games. Moreover, the Owls are 5-1 in match-ups in which they’ve had at least four days to prepare.
The Hawks have won all three of their Big Five contests by an average margin of 15 points and are looking to sweep the series with Temple for only the second time in 15 years.
Conversely, the Owls have lost all three of their local games by an average of 14 points.
“The future is not now,” Chaney said. “[Fans] fail to understand that we don’t have the parts this year.”
Chaney added that unlike some of his teams from the past that were able to string together wins in February and March, not to expect that this year.
One player who dramatically affects the success of the Owls is freshman center Keith Butler.
Though he has struggled mightily this year, his last two games Butler has notched 21 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks.
Such a presence will pay dividends for the Owls who rely mainly on their perimeter shooting.
Jason Haslam can be reached at Jason.firstname.lastname@example.org