His eyes are on the prize

The fun-loving senior is looking to add to the tradition of great guard play at Temple.

The fun-loving senior is looking to add to the tradition of great guard play at Temple.

KEVIN COOK TTN Dionte Christmas holds last year’s A-10 Championship trophy in the atrium of the Liacouras Center. The 6-foot-5-inch, 205-pound senior guard is hoping to capture that same hardware again this season.

In the long and storied history of the men’s basketball program, names like Guy Rodgers, Hal Lear, Bill Mlkvy and Mark Macon line the banners of the Liacouras Center.

Recently, it’s been the likes of Pepe Sanchez, Lynn Greer, David Hawkins and Mardy Collins who have carried on the tradition.

Now, senior guard Dionte Christmas has his chance to add his name to that prestigious list. He has his chance to be the next 1,500-point scorer, the next guy to carry his team deep into the NCAA Tournament.

And that’s why a year after leading the Owls to their first Tournament appearance since 2001, Christmas’ eyes are set on making another run.

Anything short of that would be a failure.

“It’s definitely a must,” he said. “Getting past the first round is a must for me. I wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t get past the first round of the Tournament.”

Last year, Christmas and his 19.7 points per game helped the Owls capture the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship and make the Tournament as a No. 11 seed. But they lost to No. 6 Michigan State, badly, in the first round.

Yet, the entire year was not all bad.

“It felt so good in the second half of the season to pick it up like we did,” Christmas said. “It was fun. It was a fun ride. And with the help of [everyone], we could do it again this year.”

This will be a big year for Christmas, with NBA scouts watching his every move and Temple fans looking at him to lead the way. The weight of an entire program rests softly on his 6-foot-5-inch frame.
But perhaps he has the right mindset for a job like that.

“He keeps his antics going all day. [He] just doesn’t stop,” senior guard Semaj Inge said. “Always talking, talking about girls, talking about basketball. [He’s] just always talking.”

“He’s just a funny guy. He loves to joke around,” junior guard Ryan Brooks added. “[He] makes the atmosphere a positive atmosphere that everybody wants to be around.”

That kind of personality can be a key for a team to have, with long bus trips, plane rides and weight room sessions common occurrences during the tiring days of a basketball season.

With that, it helps to have a joking, talkative guy like Christmas around.

But don’t peg the Philadelphia Lutheran Christian Academy product as just comic relief. He also has a bit of a competitive streak going for him.

“The first time I came here, I remember him saying, ‘You’re going to have to earn your playing time,’” Brooks said. “I definitely [took] it personally. … He wasn’t going to let a freshman come in and take his time. So, I definitely knew right away that he was very competitive.”

That kind of attitude led Christmas to practice his game every day during the summer after his sophomore year of high school. Practicing helped him have the breakout junior season that led to his eventual scholarship at Temple.

Now, in his final year on North Broad Street, all those days in the gym and all those nights practicing his jump shot are going to come into play more than ever.

He is the go-to guy on this Owls team. He is now the guy who will make this team go.

But, his coach said he should have spent some of that time practicing his defense.

“I’m not expecting him to be the second coming of Scottie Pippen or whatever,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “But I’d like him to play a little better defense than he has in the past. He’s heard me enough on that.”

However, Christmas considers defense the part of his game people don’t give him enough credit for.
“I’m a great defender,” he said. “Everybody sees a lot of my offense, but I can be a great defender and a great passer.”

That running subplot, alongside many others, is sure to be a focal point for the Owls this season.
Just don’t tell Christmas that.

“I’m just focused on Nov. 14 when we toss that ball up against East Tennessee State,” he said. “That’s the only thing on my mind right now.”

Todd Orodenker can be reached at todd.orodenker@temple.edu.

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