Blown opportunities delay Temple men’s basketball tournament chances

Temple is on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament after a 2-3 record in its past five games.

Coach Fran Dunphy covers his face on the sideline during Temple’s 72-68 loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 27 at the Liacouras Center. | JUSTIN OAKES / FILE PHOTO

With nine regular-season games left, Temple University is on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament picture.

The Owls (16-6, 6-3 American Athletic Conference) aren’t in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest projected field from Friday, sitting as one of the first four teams to miss the cut. But they’re a No. 11 seed in CBS’ Sunday projection after beating Tulane 75-67 on Saturday in New Orleans.

After the NCAA selects its 68 team field, they will then pick four teams who were on the bubble of the tournament as its first four out. The lack of resume-building wins and three losses in the past five games may result in Temple missing the tournament in coach Fran Dunphy’s final season. 

Temple earned a quality conference win when it beat nationally ranked Houston on Jan. 9 at the Liacouras Center. But the Owls missed other opportunities for strong wins in their 78-73 loss to Central Florida on Jan. 2 and in their 72-68 loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 27.

Temple is currently fourth in The American behind Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida. All of Temple’s remaining games are against conference opponents, but only one — their March 9 matchup against UCF — is against a team above it in the standings.

UCF is third in the conference while Cincinnati is tied for first, and both teams will make the tournament in Lunardi’s latest projection. The Owls dropped another opportunity to build their resume on Thursday in a 73-66 road loss to nationally ranked Houston, which is tied for first in The American.

To make the tournament, Temple had to win close games and beat teams it is supposed to beat, senior guard Shizz Alston Jr. said in September. 

The Owls followed Alston’s formula having 14-3 overall record and 8-2 mark in games decided by seven or fewer points before it fell to Penn 77-70 on Jan. 19. Before the loss, Temple was a tournament team, Lunardi predicted.

Using the NCAA Evaluation Tool — a new standard that replaced Ratings Percentage Index as the main evaluation tool for tournament selection in July 2018 — Temple’s loss to Penn hurt the Owls’ resume. The Quakers lost to then-winless Monmouth University and dropped back-to-back games to Princeton University, which is ranked 157th in NET, before defeating the Owls.

Temple can still make a march to the tournament with its No. 54 NET ranking, but going 2-3 and failing to win a game decided by seven or fewer points since its loss to Penn could hurt them. 

Alston believed the Owls blew an opportunity to have an important win against Cincinnati and in their 10-point loss to nationally ranked Villanova on Dec. 5, 2018. The Owls led Villanova by four points in the second half before the Wildcats went on a 12-0 run.

Against Cincinnati, Temple led by 10 at halftime before second-half adjustments helped Cincinnati defeat the Owls.

“We weren’t tough enough, simple as that,” sophomore forward J.P. Moorman II said following the game.

Following Cincinnati’s win against Temple, Bearcats’ coach Mick Cronin called his team’s road win “tremendous” because he believes Temple is a tournament-caliber team.

Temple is 2-5 against current tournament teams according to CBS’ projection. A win against a ranked opponent and a few fringe tournament teams might not be enough to get the Owls into the tournament for the first time since the 2015-16 season.

During that season, Temple won The American’s regular-season title and earned a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The Owls also hope to enter the conference tournament in a strong position this year.

“Winning a national title is the ultimate goal, but you have to take baby steps within that,” associate head coach Aaron McKie said before the season in October. “Our first baby step will be to win our conference, and anytime you win your conference you position yourself well for the NCAA Tournament.”

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