For the first time in a long time, Temple coach John Chaney started three freshmen on opening day.
Center Keith Butler, guard Maurice Collins and forward Antywane Robinson were all thrown into a lions den and expected to survive against some of the top teams in the NCAA.
Butler and Robinson have showed promise.
But for now, Collins is the Daniel in the lions den.
Collins, from Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz High School, has played and started all 33 games this season, including Tuesday night’s NIT game at Rhode Island.
With a 6′ 5″, 205-pound frame, he has the build of a shooting guard but plays the point guard position.
Collins was named to the Atlantic 10 Conference All-Rookie team after averaging 11.9 points per game.
The Owls lead the A-10 in fewest turnovers per game (9.9), due in part to the ballhandling skills of Collins.
Even though his stats are impressive for any freshman, they do not tell the entire story.
To understand how good Collins has been, you just have to see him play.
When matched up last Friday against Boston College guard Troy Bell, the Big East Conference Player of the Year and a senior who averages over 25 points and two steals per game, Collins earned Bell’s respect.
At the beginning of the game, Bell tried pressing Collins from basket to basket to intimidate him.
Collins calmly bought the ball up-court, crossed Bell at the wing, left him guarding a mirage and proceeded to drive to the basket.
From then on, Bell backed off Collins and respected his handle throughout the game.
Collins left spectators at the Palestra in awe. Even his coach, the sternest of evaluators, has been impressed.
“I didn’t expect him to play point for me,” Chaney said. “He’s done a pretty good job for me this season.”
Temple’s top scorer, junior David Hawkins, had nothing but praise for Collins and his play this season.
“I’m proud of Maurice for just coming in and playing point guard for John Chaney, with as much demand as he puts on his point, so I just have to tip my hat to him,” Hawkins said.
“He made the all-rookie team and he’s doing his thing right now.”
Collins played the point to Chaney’s satisfaction, which is no small feat, and his performances in the clutch have been outstanding.
Against Xavier in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals, Collins pulled up for a three-pointer on David West, the leading shot blocker in the A-10, and drained it to help send Temple on to the championship game.
Temple, trying to put Boston College away last Friday, gave a late turnover to the Eagles.
Facing a two-on-one fast break, Collins managed to come away with a big steal and feed Hawkins the ball for a three.
“I didn’t have the privilege my freshman year to get the ball in the clutch because of Quincy (Wadley) and Lynn (Greer), but I think he’s made coach pretty comfortable with him playing and taking shots in the clutch,” Hawkins said.
Assistant coach Bill Ellerbee coached Collins last year at Gratz and knew he had an upside that would turn heads once he hit the college circuit.
“Well, he’s a money player,” Ellerbee said.
“One of the things that he has going in his favor is he was used to finishing off the third and fourth quarter at Gratz at the point guard spot.
So he’s used to handling the ball at crunch time, and he’s used to taking the big shots, too.”
On the court, Collins handles and shoots the ball with a calm demeanor that might lead some to believe he bleeds ice. No stage seems too big for Collins.
“I just go out there and play, I don’t really think about what’s going on,” Collins said.
“I’m just out there playing. Whenever we need a big shot, I put myself in a position to get a good shot. I just take it.”
With every player but senior forward Alex Wesby returning next season, Collins and the Owls would seem to have a bright future.
Collins is improving faster than anyone imagined he would, and he could be a nightmare for opposing teams in the near future if he keeps up this pace.
“Well, I’ll tell you he could be a monster.
He is a big guard at 6’5″ and he can handle the ball,” Ellerbee said.
] “He has already proven that he could play at this level. Coach was thinking about him initially as the two guard, but he’s a combo now – a big time combo.”
David Cargin can be reached at email@example.com.