While graduate center Micheal Eric has had a welcome return to the lineup after missing 13 games due to an injured kneecap, his absence could actually be described as a blessing in disguise for the Owls.
Eric played 17 minutes in games against Charlotte and St. Joseph’s last week and scored 17 points to go along with 11 rebounds. Though his presence sparked his team, Eric’s greater contribution this season happened when his teammates all stepped up while he was out.
Redshirt-freshman forward Anthony Lee, who hadn’t played a minute on the collegiate level prior to this season, has started 16 games this year in place of Eric. Lee averages more than 21 minutes per game and is second to Eric in rebounding average while leading the team in blocks.
“[Lee] has come a very long way,” Eric said. “He’s had to mature as fast as he could because situations like this happen. I appreciate what he’s done.”
“[Lee] would not have the year he’s having without [Eric] getting hurt,” coach Fran Dunphy added.
Lee’s development in Eric’s absence has made him a valuable player in the frontcourt and will pay dividends next year when Lee will likely start at forward.
“I’m very impressed with [Lee],” Dunphy said after the St. Joe’s game. “Obviously we have [Eric] back now, but [Lee] has done a great job in stemming the tide for us.”
In addition to Lee’s progression, Eric’s absence also brought out a surge in scoring from Temple’s three starting guards, senior Juan Fernandez, junior Khalif Wyatt and redshirt- senior Ramone Moore.
Moore leads the Atlantic Ten Conference in scoring with 17.4 points per game, and Wyatt is four spots behind him with 16.0 ppg. Fernandez leads the team in assists and is second in three-point percentage.
Wyatt, in particular, stepped up while Eric was injured. Wyatt was suspended for the team’s first game for playing in an unsanctioned summer league game and averaged 12 points a contest during the next three games that Eric played in before getting hurt.
In the 13 games that Eric missed, Wyatt averaged 17.4 ppg and hit game-deciding shots against Buffalo, Delaware and Duke in three consecutive contests.
Eric said that his teammates showed resilience during his injury.
“My teammates stepped up in big games,” Eric said. “It shows how much of a team we are.”
Temple is 6-1 with Eric and 9-4 without him. Eric was leading the A-10 in rebounding before getting injured, and in losses to Bowling Green, Texas, Dayton and Richmond in Eric’s absence, the Owls were outrebounded by a combined total of 149 to 106.
But Temple was able to carry a winning record throughout his absence and even upset a Top 5 program in the Blue Devils. Now that Eric is back, the Owls have to be thinking that the hard part is over.
“I think there’s a trust in [Eric], that he’s been around for a long time and [players] know what to expect from him,” Dunphy said after the St. Joe’s game. “Just his presence is valuable to us, his size. He’s doing some good things, he’s working really hard.”
The effect of Eric’s return on the play of his team has been outstanding in the past two games.
The Owls have defeated their past two opponents by a combined margin of 40 points.They’ve shot a combined 57.4 percent from the floor, and Temple’s shooting percentage of 60 percent on Saturday was a season high.
“It’s a combination of having [Eric] back and that we’ve been pretty effective shooting the ball,” Moore said after the St. Joe’s game. “We’ve played two good teams the past two games and we’ve come out and played well.”
“[Eric] has helped a great deal,” Dunphy added. “His presence helped. The confidence levels that he brings to our other guys has helped. And obviously he has played well. He almost has all the rust off.”
The fact that Temple went 9-4 and upset a Top 5 program without Eric, and will only get better as he continues to get healthy, raises the question of, “How far can this team go?”
“It’s a progression,” Eric said. “I have to crawl before I walk. Game one was a feel-in, game two was getting accustomed to moving, game three was gain confidence. Hopefully game four will get me be back to where I was.”
Joey Cranney can be reached at email@example.com.