It’s the day after a game against Connecticut and Dalton Pepper quickly shed the pink shoes he received as part of the cancer awareness promotion. As he laces up his non-assuming black and white Under Armour pair, he says that the shoes from yesterday will probably join the other two pink pairs he has in his closet, but doesn’t wear. They all fit his size 14 foot, but they might be a little too flashy for him.
You couldn’t find a sharper contrast than between Temple’s senior leaders in the past two seasons. Last year, it was guard Khalif Wyatt headlining a group of five seniors. The flamboyant guard could be heard in the nosebleed sections of most arenas. Now, Pepper stands as the Owls’ lone senior. Whether he scores 30 points, thinks he got fouled, or misses an open shot, he will probably look – and sound – the same.
Quiet, unassuming and stoic.
“He’s a real quiet guy,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “We aren’t sitting here talking about life and the pursuit of happiness every day, that’s just not what we do.”
After transferring to Temple following two seasons in West Virginia, the Levittown, Pa. native sat out the 2011-12 season per NCAA rules. With a year to learn the offense, Pepper figured to see significant minutes as a junior. But due to the unexpected return of Scootie Randall and the transfer of Jake O’Brien, Pepper found himself on the wrong side of a roster crowded with five seniors.
After waiting an entire year to play, Pepper endured a season in which he averaged 11.3 minutes a game and a career-low 2.9 points.
“We had an abundance of guys that if you weren’t doing your job every single day, every single moment, we would go a different direction,” Dunphy said. “He had his opportunities, he had his moments, but he didn’t seize them like he has this year.”
As a junior, Pepper looked lost on the court, missed assignments defensively, and when he did get a shot off, he usually missed. Pepper shot 32 percent from the floor, the lowest mark on the team.
After having a year to watch and learn from the bench, Pepper said he figured he would play and contribute more. The consensus reached by his coaches, teammates and himself was that he had the talent, but not the confidence.
“Little bit of confidence, little bit of getting comfortable,” Pepper said. I struggled to find time on the court.”
Pepper’s meteoric rise this season is largely unprecedented. In four years, Pepper went from being an ESPN Top 100 recruit and playing in a Final Four as a freshman, to watching two NCAA tournament games from the bench as a junior. In his fifth and final year of college, he leads the team in points and minutes, with 17.6 and 37.4, respectively.
“He’s been thrust into a situation where it’s not like if he doesn’t play well we are taking him out of the game,” Dunphy said. “We are allowing him to play through some mistakes that we wasn’t allowed to play through last year.
A player who failed to score in 18 of the team’s 34 games in one season is seldom called upon to lead the team in points the next. Pepper has posted 20 or more points 13 times as a senior, a far cry from his season-high 13 points last year.
The moment when Pepper said he realized he needed to mean more to the Owls came in Europe. With the team seeing its first competition without the aid of the five departed seniors, there was nowhere to hide.
“At first it was weird,” Pepper said. “I knew I would have to change my role. But after a couple of games I got more comfortable.”
“You don’t have the guys you had last year to pick up the slack, its on you,” junior guard Will Cummings said. “Europe was the biggest eye-opener.”
As he has progressed through his senior season, it became clear that Pepper’s confidence level was ascending quickly. Players don’t go from missing everything from assignments to open shots one season, to headlining a team the next because they simply got better. Talent doesn’t work that way.
“The more you are out there the more comfortable you are going to be,” Pepper said. “I’m happy the way everything has fallen into place.”
“This is the Dalton that everybody is used to seeing, that we’re used to seeing in practice every day,” Cummings said. “We are glad he has made his transition from last year to this year… his confidence is at an all-time high.”
As he scores each night, Pepper gets more accustomed to the cheers that come his way that didn’t last year. The player that relies so heavily on his confidence level said he doesn’t blame the fans for their support that could be called lackluster at best.
“’He’s not as good as people say he is,’ or ‘he can’t play at this level,’” Pepper said. “At least that’s what I would have said if I was a Temple fan coming in and watching. It’s nothing against anybody else because I didn’t produce like I should have.”
With a newfound confidence, Pepper has elevated his game to a level he had never shown in his collegiate career. With his scoring and leadership however, Temple hasn’t reaped the benefits in the win column.
The Owls won their final two games of the regular season to bring Temple’s overall record to 9-21, 4-14 in the American Athletic Conference. The team will enter The American Tournament as the eighth seed, and barring a four-game win streak, won’t make the NCAA tournament. The first 20-loss season in the program’s 119-year history has coincided with Pepper’s career year.
“If I had hit a few more shots, grabbed a few more rebounds, maybe it would have been different,” Pepper said.
“He’s done everything he could possibly do,” Dunphy said. “I don’t know what else we could ask of Dalton Pepper in his last year of college basketball.”
While roster help is on the way in the form of three transfer students, sophomore forward Daniel Dingle’s return from injury and at least one recruit; Pepper has thrived in the midst of a lame-duck season. In his final collegiate year, the Owls have dressed six scholarship players at times. After starting the season 5-5, the team lost 14 of 16 games.
Through the team’s struggles, Pepper was the team’s leading scorer 13 times.
“I’m proud of him,” Cummings said. “You can’t ask too much more of him. You don’t know why things happen the way they do.”
Pepper refused to comment on where he thought his basketball ability will take him after the season ends. While he believes that all options are on the table, he didn’t want to look past his remaining collegiate games.
In all likelihood, the senior’s career will come to an end at some point in Memphis during the conference tournament. After a 180 degree turnaround from his junior season, speculating on what Pepper will do seems impossible.
Although it’s safe to say what won’t happen.
“I don’t expect him to get emotional,” Cummings said. “That’s just the way Dalton is.”
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @IbrahimJacobs.