With Temple’s fifth straight conference win in the balance and a 16-point comeback against Memphis on the verge of completion, Will Cummings toed the free-throw line with one more shot to put the Owls ahead by two points and in control of the game.
The Tigers responded by scoring on the following possession, only to have Cummings race up-court and do something that would help Temple win the game.
Cummings found an open Josh Brown for a short jump shot with 2.4 seconds remaining, and Temple maintained its push to return to competitive basketball in mid-March.
For Cummings, a senior guard out of Jacksonville, Florida, it was a fitting cap to an otherwise poor 40 minutes. He missed six of 11 free throws and turned the ball over four times. But, he proved one thing – this team has not and cannot win without him.
Temple’s 8-3 conference record is entirely dependent on its point guard’s health.
When he went down with a left-leg muscle strain against Tulsa, Cummings was severely limited in two conference games, and did not play in the third. The team would drop all three contests.
Its third of that span – a 31-point defeat to the University of Cincinnati – was Cummings’ only missed game of the season, and the team’s largest defeat in five years. Even a relatively serviceable Cummings-led team hasn’t lost in conference play.
Temple hasn’t seen its star player primarily distribute, and not score, in the Fran Dunphy era, but Cummings has risen his game dramatically in each season of play, and now stands as the only irreplaceable player on the team’s roster.
He ranks in the Top 5 in the conference in assists, steals, minutes per game and assist/turnover ratio. More than the numbers he provides, Cummings is doing something he was never, and has never, been comfortable with – leading.
“Off the court I’m not vocal,” Cummings said. “I’m kind of laid back and that’s how I am. This is where I come out of my shell. I have kind of grown up. [Dunphy] has helped me out a lot and [made] me a better leader.”
Being demonstrative has never been a part of the guard’s personality. Cummings is soft-spoken and very quiet. As a freshman and sophomore, he was timid and sometimes unresponsive in media interviews and lacked a voice in the locker room and on the court. Now, he is the unanimous recipient of the inconsequential media good-guy award, but more importantly, controls the game every minute he plays.
“A lot [goes through me],” Cummings said. “Everybody looks to me to be the vocal leader especially in games and practice. I try to set a great example.”
The guard’s maturation process has been one accelerated by the departure of a senior-heavy roster in 2013, and enduring one of the worst seasons in school history in 2014.
Cummings is so critical to the team’s success, to the point that he is able to dictate the game without dominating the basketball. The team’s guard trio of Cummings, Quenton DeCosey and Jesse Morgan all own double-digit scoring averages. But Cummings’ 91 assists are 43 more than his closest teammate in DeCosey, despite having just one more turnover.
“He’s poised, he’s a senior, he’s a veteran,” Morgan said. “It makes it a lot easier when you know you have a ball-handler that is going to make great decisions down the stretch and keep the game at his pace.”
For the team’s final seven regular-season games, Cummings’ health is of paramount concern. The team’s inability to sustain runs and leads without its point guard on the floor has caused his minutes to increase even as he recovers from injury. Dunphy has admitted after multiple games that he tried to pull Cummings out, but reinserted him when leads began to dwindle.
He also routinely takes hard fouls around the rim, and has been the recipient of two flagrant fouls this season on near-identical plays. The first sparked his leg injury, while the second caused a collectively-held breath on the Temple sideline.
Should he stay healthy for the final seven games of regular season play and the conference tournament, Temple’s season will not end the way it did in 2014. Cummings has elevated his game far above what it was when he scored 29 points his freshman year and posted a 0.6 assist/turnover ratio. In the senior’s final act, the Owls will go as far as he takes them.
While their fate lies in the hands – and health – of Cummings, only one part of his game must change.
“I know coach will have us at the free throw line,” he said. “We will be practicing those the rest of the year.”
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter @ibrahimjacobs