After another disagreement with head coach Aaron McKie, Temple guard Khalif Battle was absent for Temple’s 88-83 overtime loss at Cincinnati (19-11, 10-7 American Athletic Conference) Wednesday night.
Battle and McKie were at odds again during the Owls’ Feb. 16 loss to Wichita State (15-13, 8-8 AAC). After missing each of his four shot attempts, Battle was benched having played just 17 minutes. The redshirt-sophomore hasn’t been with the team since, including practices.
Ahead of Thursday’s Senior Night game against Central Florida (16-12, 7-9 AAC) – an event that Battle would participate in as a fourth-year player – and the regular season finale against Tulane (17-9, 10-5 AAC) and the AAC Tournament. Without their best player, March could result in another short stay in Dallas for the Owls.
“That’s something we’re working through internally,” McKie said when asked about Battle’s absence.
This isn’t the first time this season that a disagreement between Battle and McKie has been made public. In the Nov. 15 overtime loss against Vanderbilt (16-13, 9-7 Southeastern Conference), Battle shot 0-for-5, including 0-for-4 from deep in 19 minutes of play and was benched.
With a 1-2 record and home overtime losses against Quadrant 3 and 4 teams, an ESPNU broadcast reported that Battle and McKie had a meeting before Temple’s Nov. 18 win against Rutgers (18-11, 10-8 Big Ten) in the 2022 Basketball Hall of Fame Showcase.
Battle, after averaging 21.4 points in seven games in 2021-22 and being named a 2022-23 Preseason Second-Team All-American Athletic Conference selection, hadn’t started a game at that point.
However, Battle told reporters that his role as Temple’s sixth man was not the cause for his disagreement with McKie.
“From the outside looking in, y’all don’t know what’s going on,” Battle said after the Rutgers win. “I love the guys on my team, I love my coaching staff. They love me back. When you’re on a team, sometimes you have situations that happen, but that’s all love.”
Aside from Temple’s Feb. 19 win against Tulsa (5-23, 1-16 AAC) and the Cincinnati loss, Battle has not missed a game this season, even through the December passing of his grandmother.
During Temple’s disappointing season, Battle is averaging a team-high 17.9 points per game. Battle and all-conference teammate Damian Dunn have been Temple’s only consistent isolation scorers from the perimeter.
Though Dunn is averaging 27.5 points in the four games that Battle has either missed or been benched in, Temple (15-14, 9-7 AAC) is in danger of losing a top-five seed in the AAC without the other half of its star backcourt.
The Owls’ last two games of the regular season are against third-place Tulane and seventh-place UCF. Temple lost its Jan. 7 home game to the Green Wave by 11 points, and needed overtime to beat UCF at The Liacouras Center on Jan. 28.
With Battle away from the team and sophomore guard Shane Dezonie possibly done for the season with a right hand injury, Temple’s backcourt is down to three players in Dunn and sophomores Hysier Miller and Jahlil White.
Dezonie will be reevaluated in the next week, and White left Wednesday’s game early after twisting his ankle.
To avoid the same roster and stamina issues that Temple Women’s Basketball is struggling with, McKie may have to throw freshman Deuce Roberts into the fire, similar to what he did with Miller last season when Battle suffered a season-ending foot injury..
McKie has yet to win a game in the conference tournament since taking over as Temple’s head coach in 2019. Last season was the first time that McKie clinched a first-round bye in the tournament. To repeat that, the Owls will most likely need to win one of their final two games.
“It gives you a chance to be able to play three games as opposed to four,” McKie said. “It’s really hard, if you look at the statistics, to try to win out playing four games. It’s not great. But if you can get that bye and position yourself in that sense, I think those numbers increase.”
Wichita is 1.5 games behind Temple for the fifth seed and owns the tiebreaker against the Owls. Seventh place UCF is 2.5 games behind Temple and, with a March 2 road win against the Owls, will have a chance to claim a tiebreaker over Temple via its overall record.
Simply put, McKie and Battle need each other. It’s unlikely that McKie makes his first AAC semifinal without Battle, and Battle doesn’t need the reputation of being too hard to deal with as he goes through the NBA Draft process this year.