The men’s basketball team has won the first five games of the season for the first time since 1987, but that doesn’t mean the Owls are off to their best start in 25 years.
Four of Temple’s five wins have come against teams with a losing record. The Owls are winning those games, against teams with a combined record of 8–22, by an average of eight points.
There’s been a blemish on Temple’s box score in every game so far this season.
In the opener against Kent State (5–3), the Owls turned the ball over 19 times. On Nov. 17 against Rice (2–5), the Owls shot 4-for-26 (15.4 percent) from beyond the arc. Temple shot 35 percent against Buffalo (2–7) on Nov. 28 and scored a season low 54 points, including 23 points in the second half.
But more unnerving is the common theme of Temple being unable to defend or assert itself offensively in the post against opponents with sizable forwards.
In games against Kent State, Delaware and Wagner, Temple has either allowed a post player to score double-digit points, been outrebounded or been outscored in the paint.
Kent State’s Chris Evans, a 6-foot-8-inch senior forward, scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a game when the Owls were outrebounded 44 to 30. Six-foot-9-inch senior forward Jamelle Hagins registered a double-double for Delaware and the Blue Hens outscored the Owls 26 to 16 in the paint.
Wagner was led by a physical underclassmen and an athletic veteran guard in a 70–62 loss to Temple on Saturday, Dec. 1. Sophomore Mario Moody, a 6-foot-7-inch forward, grabbed 14 rebounds, including seven offensive rebounds in 22 minutes. Seahawks’ senior Jonathon Williams, a 6-foot-6-inch guard, scored 15 points and had six rebounds.
Wagner outrebounded the Owls 42 to 30 and outscored Temple in the paint 30 to 24.
The majority of Wagner’s points on the inside came in the first half, when the Seahawks outscored the Owls inside by a margin of 18 to eight. Temple redshirt-sophomore Anthony Lee, a 6-foot-9-inch forward and the man most responsible for guarding post players, missed 17 minutes of the first half after registering two fouls in the game’s first three minutes.
Lee picked up another foul in the second half and was benched again. He finished the game with four points and one rebound in 12 minutes.
“[Lee] needs to stay on the floor better than he did,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “It’s a team concept issue, where he gets left out to dry, so we can’t do that to him. But he needs to play through that. In the second half, you can’t pick up your third foul right away and you have to be smarter with beating people to the spot.”
Lee got into foul trouble early against Delaware, too, a game in which the Owls allowed a season-high 29 points from Hagins.
When Lee’s playing time is limited due to foul trouble, the Owls rely on 6-foot-6-inch senior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, 6-foot-6-inch redshirt-senior forward Scootie Randall and 6-foot-9-inch graduate forward Jake O’Brien to pick up the slack in the frontcourt.
“It’s very important that [Lee] stays on the floor,” Randall said. “I think [O’Brien’s] ability to guard perimeter players and trying to guard the big guys brings a versatility to our program. I think we can run offense and switch a lot on defense with [Lee] not on the floor. It doesn’t matter what situation we’re in, we just find a way to get it done.”
O’Brien, more of a stretch four than a power forward, said he’s used to covering big men and has been doing it throughout his career.
“I call myself a four, but I’ve played a lot of five,” O’Brien said. “It’s something I’ve always done. When I’m called to do it, I just have to be ready.”
The Owls had similar struggles down low last season when Micheal Eric was out for six weeks with a knee injury. Lee, then a freshman, was forced to play undersized and inexperienced. Temple didn’t have Randall, who redshirted, or O’Brien, who was playing at Boston University, to help deal with the lack of size last season, but the team at least had the prospect of knowing that its 6-foot-11-inch center, Eric, would return.
Temple doesn’t have that comfort this season. Dunphy has entrusted the role of power forward to his undersized sophomore and the team has tried to alleviate its height issues with strong perimeter play from its athletic guards and small forwards.
The answer for Temple could be in the form of 6-foot-10-inch freshman center Devontae Watson. Watson registered 1,000 points, rebounds and blocks at Lincoln Park Center in Ambridge, Pa., but has played one minute through five games.
Dunphy historically doesn’t like to play young players early, but has given an unusually large amount of playing time to Watson’s classmate, freshman guard Quenton DeCosey, who has played in every game so far this season.
After the game against Delaware when Temple got hurt in the paint, Dunphy said Watson could’ve helped the team down low.
“I don’t want to throw [Watson] to the wolves yet,” Dunphy said. “It’ll come soon, and when it happens I think Devontae’s going to do a really good job. He’s going to be a terrific basketball player.”
“I think it’s hard early on in your career,” Dunphy added. “I say to them all the time, ‘It’s not so much what you do well, it’s what you don’t do poorly.’ We need them to be mistake free, but you have to play in order to play through those mistakes. It’s coming for Devontae and I’m excited for his future.”
The undersized Temple frontcourt will have its toughest tests of the season this week in games against Villanova and No. 2 Duke.
Villanova is led down low by a pair of lanky, senior centers. Senior center Mouphtaou Yarou is 6 foot, 10 inches and averages nine points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Redshirt-senior center Maurice Sutton is 6 foot, 11 inches and averages 5.9 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.
Duke’s 6-foot-10-inch senior forward Mason Plumlee averages 19.6 points and 11 rebounds per game. He scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in Temple’s 78–73 upset win at the Wells Fargo Center in January of last season.
“It’s a big week for us,” Dunphy said. “Obviously Villanova is a fantastic basketball program. It’s going to be a tough game out there, no question. And Duke speaks for itself.”
While Lee is better off than he would have been without the time he gained in Eric’s absence last year, he’s still undersized and inexperienced. Temple has coasted in the first five games of the season, but two contests against prestigious programs in power conferences this week could prove to be a reality check.
Joey Cranney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joey_cranney.