AAC tournament starts on Thursday

The Owls play East Carolina in the first game of the American Athletic Conference tournament.

After a two-year hiatus, the Owls returned to the NCAA tournament last year when they were awarded an at-large berth.

Despite two early Top 25 wins against West Virginia University and Florida State University, Temple’s 2017 resume won’t be enough to get the Owls into this year’s 68-team field.

The Owls (16-15, 7-11 American Athletic Conference) will need to win their conference tournament to earn an automatic qualification into the tournament. This means Temple will have to win four games in a row if it wants a chance to continue its season.

“We’re trying to win every single game that we play,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “More than that, we’re trying to win every single possession that we play. That’s the mindset that we’re in.”

Temple enters the tournament as the eighth seed. The Owls will play their first tournament game against the ninth seed, East Carolina, on Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut.

The two teams split their two games against each other in the regular season. Temple picked up an 81-62 home win on Jan. 7. The Pirates won the second meeting, defeating the Owls 78-64 in Greenville, North Carolina on Feb. 15.

If Temple can handle East Carolina, the Owls will play Southern Methodist, The American’s regular-season champion. The Owls lost 79-65 in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 4. Temple fell again 66-50 in the second matchup on Feb. 9.

After a win against the Mustangs, the Owls will need to pick up a semifinal win followed by a championship victory to punch their NCAA tournament ticket.

Temple hasn’t yet shown that it is capable of winning the conference tournament. The Owls are 0-7 against the league’s top four teams, and this year, Temple has only won back-to-back games once since starting play in The American. But the Owls will make some conference history if they can pull off the feat.

“I feel like we didn’t play our best basketball in conference play,” redshirt-senior swingman Daniel Dingle said. “I feel like we defeated ourselves. Credit to SMU and Cincinnati and UCF, those guys. They definitely came and played their best basketball and beat us, but I think our best basketball has yet to come.”

In The American’s first three years of existence, only one team seeded seventh or worse advanced past the quarterfinal round. Tulane picked up two wins and advanced to the semifinals as the No. 10 seed last year.

The lowest seeded team to win the conference tournament is Connecticut, which won as the fifth seed last season.

Temple has advanced to The American’s semifinals in each of the past two years.

The Owls were the No. 1 seed in last year’s conference tournament after winning The American’s regular-season title. After a quarterfinal win against South Florida, Temple lost to UConn 77-62 in the conference semifinals.

In 2015, Temple was seeded fourth. The Owls beat Memphis before losing to Southern Methodist in the semifinals.

“Being an underdog, we’re not expected to do anything,” sophomore guard Shizz Alston Jr. said. “Last year we were expected to win. I think we play better when we’re not expected to win.”

Owen McCue can be reached at owen.mccue@temple.edu or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.

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