Entering the season, players and coaches alike knew that if there was ever a time for a Temple Men’s Basketball team to make a splash in the American, this was the year.
Whether it was the acquisition of forward Jamille Reynolds or the previous season’s all-conference play of guards Damian Dunn and Khalif Battle, Temple seemed like an offseason threat to reach a quality record this season.
As Dunn put it on Oct. 4, Temple is “tournament or bust.”
In a season of ups and downs, the team enters the 2023 American Athletic Conference Tournament as the No. 5 seed, a spot equal to their projected finish in the preseason polls. All things considered, the Owls’ inconsistency throughout the year has led them to a winnable matchup in the second round of the AAC Tournament on March 10.
Head coach Aaron McKie has faced pressure to show significant improvement in his fourth season. While he may not have met those expectations, there have been moments that prove he is worthy of an extension, and moments that show the opposite.
For instance, Temple’s Nov. 11 victory against nationally-ranked Villanova or Nov. 18 win against Quadrant 1 Rutgers showed the best of what Temple has to offer. Their best win came against No. 1 Houston on Jan. 22 in a 56-55 thriller that saw the Owls’ expectations rise.
“It was a cold celebration for me cause the guys threw a lot of cold water on me,” McKie said after the win. “It’s always fun to see guys so excited and enjoying this game of basketball.”
Consistency is not the only issue for the Owls entering the tournament.
Battle, a redshirt-sophomore, has been away from the team since being benched on Feb. 16 in Temple’s loss to Wichita State. Battle was absent for the team’s final three regular season games and will miss the tournament as well, McKie said.
“That’s something we’re working through internally,” McKie later said.
In Battle’s absence, Dunn has been tasked with stepping up in the key moments as the main scorer. Dunn is averaging 15.4 points per game this season, but he’ll need some help.
Reynolds, guard Hysier Miller and forward Zach Hicks will need to hit their shots and defend well against a team like No. 4 Cincinnati. Cincinnati’s leading scorer is guard Landers Nolley II, who is averaging 16.5 points per game, followed by guard David DeJulius who is averaging 15.1 points per game.
Miller and guard Jahlil White will likely be tasked with defending the Bearcats’ best players, a vital role for the second-round contest.
In Temple’s last loss to Cincinnati, they fell 88-83 to the Bearcats in overtime. However, Temple defeated them 70-61 at home on Jan. 1. A neutral site will provide an equal playing field for both teams, so the game will come down to who will rise to the occasion.
Hicks said it best on Dec. 20.
“Top teams in the country that we want to compete with come together,” Hicks, a sophomore, said. “I think we’re struggling to do that right now.”
If there was ever a time for Temple Men’s Basketball to come together like they did in their big wins this season, it is now. For the Owls to reach the big dance, they’ll need to deliver a collaborative effort on both ends of the floor.
They will need to come together.
A Temple victory against Cincinnati would mean they’d play the winner of Houston and their second round opponent, either No. 8 South Florida or No. 9 East Carolina. If Temple shocked No. 1 Houston for the second time this season, they would play the winner on the other side of the bracket that includes No. 2 Memphis and No. 3 Tulane.
Temple kicks off their AAC Tournament dreams with the matchup against Cincinnati at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 10 at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, on ESPN2.