In a season where the competition level in the Atlantic Ten Conference increased seemingly overnight, no one could’ve expected Temple to finish as the second-best team in the 14-team league.
Especially not after a 12-18 overall and 6-8 conference campaign last year.
The No. 2 Owls (18-12) went 10-4 in the conference this season, however, and after sitting out the first round of the A-10 Tournament with a bye, will take on La Salle (15-16) in the quarterfinals at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
Temple participated in games decided by five points or less in almost half of their 14 conference games, going 4-2 in such contests.
“Every night it was kind of like the tournament,” junior guard Dionte Christmas said, referring to the competitiveness of the A-10 this season.
However bumpy the road may have been this season, it must have been a welcome change for the Owls, who made a quick exit in last year’s A-10 Tournament after losing to Saint Joseph’s, 62-60, in the first round. It was the first time the Owls didn’t make a non-conference postseason tournament appearance since 1983.
The loss also marked the end of graduating seniors Dustin Salisbery and Dion Dacons’ Temple careers and continued St. Joe’s reign of dominance over the Owls. With the win, the Hawks had won 11 of their last 12 games between the two teams up to that point.
The Owls, who struggled defensively throughout last season, played well enough to take a 56-56 lead over the Hawks but a 12-2 spurt reversed the tide and gave St. Joe’s a 63-58 advantage with 11 seconds left to play.
Rob Ferguson scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for the Hawks. He was aided by Pat Calathes and Garrett Williamson, who combined for 26 points.
Mark Tyndale led the Owls with 22 points in the loss, while Salisbery connected for 12 points and then-freshman Ryan Brooks added 15 points off the bench. Christmas, the Owls leading scorer at 20 points per game last season, was held to seven points on 3 of 9 shooting.
“This year, we were up and down,” Christmas said after the loss to St. Joe’s last March. “We know some games we came out sluggish and some games we came out with intensity. We know we have to come out every game with intensity and be ready to play. Every game. That’s all I can take from this season.”
This year, the Owls can take solace in the fact that they’ve made a four-game improvement in conference games, but there’s a lot more at stake when the Owls open A-10 Tournament play Thursday night.
If Temple can make a run to Saturday’s championship game, the possibility of a berth in the NCAA Tournament could increase. Even if they fail to make the Big Dance, it appears likely that they will attain a bid in the NIT or the newly-formed 16-team College Basketball Invitational.
No matter where they land, it would be significant leap from where the Owls ended up last year.
Tyson McCloud can be reached at Tyson@temple.edu.
Also read: “Christmas runs through March”