Basketball Preview: Picking up the pieces

(From left) Khalif Wyatt, Jake O’Brien and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson bring senior leadership to the team this season. | KATE McCANN / TTN
(From left) Khalif Wyatt, Jake O’Brien and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson bring senior leadership to the team this season. | KATE McCANN / TTN

After a season in which Temple won the Atlantic 10 Conference regular season title before dropping consecutive tournament games, the Owls have been selected to finish fourth in the A-10 by a panel of league coaches and media members. To Temple’s returning players, that’s all background noise.

“We might have been picked first last year, I don’t remember,” senior guard T.J. DiLeo said. “All I know is that during the year we finished first and then we were out after the first round. Those are the things you remember.”

When the Owls take the court for the first time this season against Kent State today, Nov. 13, at noon, what they will remember is last season’s 58–44 loss to South Florida in the NCAA Tournament. What they will be trying to do is to get people to forget.

Forgetting about the loss of seniors Ramone Moore, Juan Fernandez and Michael Eric will not be an easy task. The trio consists of last season’s leader in points, assists, three-point field goals, blocks and minutes. For the returning players the loss has been met by equal, and possibly greater, gain.

“We lost three good seniors, but we gained experience,” redshirt-sophomore forward Anthony Lee said. “We did lose good talent last year but we didn’t lose much, and we are more experienced now, even with [Moore, Fernandez and Eric] being gone.”

Senior forward Scootie Randall and junior guard Dalton Pepper are two players with experience that, unlike last year, will get chances to contribute. Randall redshirted his season due to a nagging knee injury while Pepper was forced to sit out a year after transferring from West Virginia. Having two players with more than a year separating them from their last meaningful collegiate game will add excitement and experience to Temple’s team, players said.

“[Randall and Dalton] are eager to get back out on the court,” senior guard Khalif Wyatt said. “They haven’t played a meaningful game in a long time. When [Kent State] comes around they will probably be the two most excited guys on the court.”

“They practiced with us all last year so there won’t be any rust in their game,” Wyatt added. “They are probably at the best they have ever been as far as skill-wise and being in shape. Now it’s just time to put it on the court.”

While players that were on the team but did not participate last year will be expected to make contributions, Wyatt is the player that will be expected to shoulder a majority of the workload. After a season in which he finished second on the team in points and first in steals and free throws, he is primed to command attention from opposing defenses.

“We are going to count on [Wyatt] to score a lot of points for us,” DiLeo said. “He has a lot of pressure on his shoulders but he knows that we are right there with him.”

“I want to be a leader on the court,” Wyatt said. “When things aren’t going our way, I want to be the guy that my teammates can count on to make a play. I wouldn’t say it is my team, but my teammates are counting on me just as much as I am counting on them.”

Who Wyatt will be counting on as his backcourt teammate is yet to be determined. Coach Fran Dunphy has yet to name a starter at the point guard position. Dunphy said either DiLeo or sophomore Will Cummings will start, and Wyatt could see time at the position as well.

“They bring three very different approaches to the game,” Dunphy said. “[Wyatt] has more knack for the game than anybody I have ever coached, but he is not the speed and quickness kind of guy. [Cummings] has speed and quickness and he can push the floor…but I might have to put up with some turnovers. Then you have a guy like [DiLeo] who is just a solid kid. He may not have the speed and quickness of [Cummings] or the craftiness of [Wyatt], but he takes very good care of the ball.”

After playing an average of 6.3 minutes per game behind Fernandez last season, Cummings said he is ready to establish himself with a bigger role on the team.

“As a competitor you want to play,” Cummings said. “But it was a great learning experience to have as a freshman. To get minutes and see how the college game is different from high school was a plus. The thing that [the seniors] taught me was to be a leader, that is the most important thing for me to do.”

Cummings’ experience may not be too different from what freshman guard Daniel Dingle receives this season. Temple’s highest-rated recruit by ESPN, Dingle might not find as many openings to see the court in his first year with a roster full of five seniors. What he does possess is a high basketball IQ, Dunphy said, something that makes the coach unafraid to give the true freshman minutes.

“His knowledge of the game is the strongest part of his game,” Dunphy said. “His basketball IQ is very good.”

“This year is going to be a learning experience, and I knew that out of high school,” Dingle said.

On how he would adapt to the changing athleticism from the high school game to the collegiate stage, Dingle said he doesn’t need to be the best athlete to succeed.

“Beating your opponents with your IQ, being smarter thinking one step faster than them,” Dingle said while explaining what steps he’d take.

It is uncertain whether Temple will receive more significant contributions from freshmen or extended minutes from upperclassmen. But one certainty remains: the players who were at the school last year don’t want their season to end in a similar fashion.

“This season is a fresh start,” Wyatt said. “We get a chance to go out and write a different ending to our story than the seniors from the past did.”

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

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