A day after the fall semester came to an end, Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman took the team bus with a uniform underneath their warm-ups for the first time.
Against Delaware, the two transfer guards combined for 25 points, and helped spark a six-game winning streak featuring upset victories against then-No. 10 Kansas and conference foe Connecticut.
Already eclipsing its win total from the year prior, the squad has reached 12 wins and received Associated Press Top 25 poll votes last week for the first time in nearly two years.
During a six-game winning streak that dated back to the start of winter break, the Owls beat their opponents by an average of 12 points, a far cry from being outscored by an average of 0.6 points in the team’s first 10 matchups.
The sudden shift of fortunes comes as no coincidence for one of the lineup’s two newcomers, as the winter break allows for more practice time.
“I think [winter break] plays a big part in how you prepare for games,” Morgan said. “Your focus is always on just basketball, so having that much time to focus on your game and really watch film and go over things that you’re bad at … it plays a big part in what you’re doing and how you prepare for next game.”
Through his first six games, Morgan averaged 14 points per game on a streaky 37 percent from the floor, but is currently shooting 40 percent from long range.
Alongside Coleman, the newcomers have redefined the ceiling for the group, as players gain familiarity despite the six-game streak.
“We’re really still figuring ourselves out as a group,” senior guard Will Cummings said following the team’s win against Kansas on Dec. 22, 2013. “We’re just really going into practice each and every day learning new stuff that we didn’t know about ourselves.”
“[Morgan and Coleman] have helped out a lot. Those guys are great scorers,” Cummings added. “You can put the ball in their hands and trust them, that really takes a lot off my shoulders, just knowing you have guys next to you that are going to get it done.”
During the beginning of the winter break, coach Fran Dunphy acknowledged the extra time together as an opportunity for his players to build a strong foundation as a team.
“For the most part, we as coaches always think that the break is as good a time as any with your team,” Dunphy said. “There are a lot of opportunities to have with your group. There’s no school to worry about.”
Cummings, who had his lone 10-assist performance during Morgan’s and Coleman’s first game, has increased his assists per game from 3.1 through the first game streak.
“When [Cummings] is kicking it out to two pretty good jump shooters, that has to make you feel pretty good,” Dunphy said. “It makes you feel confident that when you make that play again somebody is going to step up and make that shot.”
Despite the relative success through 17 games, the Owls (12-5, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) still feature a low shooting percentage, rivaled by few. Its 37 percent from the field as a team ranks among the lowest in Division I.
In the Owls’ 63-56 loss to Tulsa on Saturday at the Liacouras Center, the team shot 31 percent from the field, including a 1-for-17 day for Morgan, who went 0 for 13 from 3-point range.
“You want [Morgan] to shoot good shots,” Dunphy said. “There were a couple of shots [on Saturday] that he should not have put in the air and had a little bit more patience. But he is a jump shooter, we’ve talked about it as a team, we’ve talked about it as a staff. … He’s helped us, but [against Tulsa] it just didn’t happen for him.”
The Owls will continue play in The American against Southern Methodist (12-4, 3-1 The American), who have shot 48 percent from the field.
E.J. Smith can be reached at email@example.com, at 215.204.9537 or on Twitter @ejsmitty17