After 32 seasons, Temple bid farewell to the Atlantic 10 Conference last March in a way no one expected it to: fighting for a spot in the A-10 title game.
Although a 66-55 loss to Fordham halted the Owls’ semi-final run in the A-10 tournament a season ago, their unexpected performance as the No. 10 seed in the tournament helped supplement a 14-18 regular season record.
In wake of a fairly impressive tournament run, and with plenty of youthful pieces in hand for the road ahead, the Owls certainly have reason to believe they can bounce back quickly in 2013-14.
Temple joins an American Athletic Conference that showcases the NCAA champion and runner-up of 2012-13 in Connecticut and Louisville, respectively. Connecticut and Louisville are slotted at No. 1 and No. 5, respectively, in the preseason USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll.
Other conference tenants such as Southern Methodist, South Florida, Memphis and Rutgers will be challenges. Temple was ultimately predicted to finish ninth out of the 10 teams in the conference preseason rankings.
Despite a relative down year last season, sixth-year coach Tonya Cardoza has overseen a team that was an A-10 power since former coach Dawn Staley took over the head coaching reigns in 2000. With the team entering an unfamiliar conference, Cardoza’s Owls have found themselves in a foreign position.
“I definitely think [the conference move] will benefit us,” Cardoza said. “The competition every single night is going to be something completely different. The biggest difference is since I’ve been here, and probably the last 10 years, Temple in the A-10 was someone that was hunted. People wanted to take us down. Now we’re in a position where we’re trying to take down someone else. It’s definitely a position we’ve never been in, but it’s exciting because we don’t have a target on our back.”
Taking on Connecticut and Louisville twice a year each is a daunting task, but one that the Owls say they’re mentally prepared for.
“Of course UConn and Louisville, everyone’s talking about those two teams,” junior guard Tyonna Williams said. “But it’s exciting that we get to play the defending champions and the runner-ups. We’re excited and we’re not scared and we’re ready for them … we’re not scared at all.”
Redshirt-senior forward Natasha Thames is the only player left of Temple’s 2009-10 group that ultimately exited the second round of the NCAA tournament, and kept the memory well in mind as she said she just wants the Owls to try to compete against the elite Husky and Cardinal teams.
“For me, I’m the only player left on the team who played them before,” Thames said. “We played them in the tournament my freshman year and we played horrible. I want us to do better. I’m not going to say we’re going to win, but I want us to play better and do well and compete. I don’t want to think, ‘Oh they’re UConn, we can’t compete with them.’ So I think it’s just us competing with them is what’s really important.”
After a year that saw many of Temple’s younger pieces enjoy a fair amount of game action, albeit with some customary growing pains, the Owls have options with experience.
Thames heads the returning group, after finishing second on the team to 2013 graduate Victoria Macauley with eight rebounds per game a season ago.
Two freshmen centers in Safiya Martin and Taylor Robinson will each vie for a chance to fill Macauley’s old spot in the low post, a potential position battle that will be one to watch as the season progresses.
Williams and junior guard Rateska Brown will come back as Temple’s top two returning scorers from a year ago, with 10.8 and 9.4 points per game, respectively. Having started only 12 of her 30 games played, Brown played a useful sixth-man role and checked in as the Owls’ second-highest average scorer to Macauley.
Brown may have to embrace that role again in the coming months, as Cardoza hinted in an interview with The Temple News that freshman guard Feyonda Fitzgerald, who averaged 22.6 PPG for Lake Taylor High School, will likely start alongside Williams in the early going.
“I’m kind of taking [Fitzgerald] under my wing,” Williams said. “She’s going to be a big asset to our team this year. She’s a very fast scoring point guard. I see her making a lot of the same mistakes I made last year and I’m just trying to mentor her and show her what coach [Cardoza] expects.”
Senior Shi-Heria Shipp, a George Washington transfer, could also contribute heavily at guard with size and scoring ability, posting career highs of 9.6 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game with the Colonials last season. Redshirt-sophomore guard Monaye Merritt is another option at guard for Cardoza, as the Philadelphia native is back with the team after sitting out all of last season with a torn ACL.
On the defensive side, Cardoza and Thames both said team defense is a strength to this team, provided the Owls can adjust to several new rules put into effect by the NCAA that will stiffen rules on fouling in an attempt to emphasize cleaner, feet-first defense.
“They want to speed up the game I guess,” Thames said. “They’re going to be a lot harder on calling fouls. They’re really looking for people to play defense with their feet and not their hands. There are 32 new rules so I guess it’ll be hard to adjust to it, but if we work at it hard in practice we can do it in a game.”
The Owls will tip off the season Friday at Big 5 rival La Salle and will face Auburn for the home opener on Nov. 16. Conference play will kick off on the road at Memphis on Dec. 29.
“I think what can make or break us this season is all about effort,” Williams said. “Talent-wise, it’s there. We have the talent to win 20 games this season. We have the talent to win the Big 5 championship. We have the talent to make the NCAA tournament, but it’s all about effort. We need everybody to bring their effort and contribute each and every day, night in and night out, each and every game.”
Andrew Parent can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @daParent93.