The longer senior guard Semaj Inge sat watching the Selection Sunday show, the sweatier his palms became.
The rest of the men’s basketball team felt the anxiety, too. Junior guard Ryan Brooks said the Owls joked they weren’t going to see their name called at all until, at last, they received their NCAA Tournament assignment: sixth-seeded Arizona State, Friday in Miami.
With that announcement, the anxiety hanging over the Owls evaporated into the air, and the Liacouras Center’s Fox-Gittis room became a sea of smiling players, coaches and fans.
The Owls must make sure that same nervousness doesn’t reappear against the Sun Devils. It did last year when they faced Michigan State, and their first visit to the Big Dance since 2001 ended with an uninspiring, 72-61, defeat.
“Of course, Michigan State had a lot to do with that,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “If I was trying to handle the ball or make a play against Michigan State, I’d be nervous, too.”
Fair enough. But the Owls should not be fidgety about playing such difficult competition this year. They have proven themselves capable of beating – not just competing against – NCAA-quality opponents.
The Owls deserve to be in this Tournament as much as any mid major does. No, they wouldn’t have gotten in without winning the Atlantic Ten Conference Tournament. But their attempt for an at-large bid wouldn’t have failed because of a lack of quality wins but rather for having too many clunkers.
The Owls are quite capable of upsetting a team or two. The talent is certainly there.
Senior guard Dionte Christmas might not be this year’s version of Davidson’s phenom guard Stephen Curry, but would it really surprise anyone if he caught fire and led Temple to a pair of wins this weekend? Not Philadelphians, at least.
But if Christmas is kept at bay, the Owls aren’t automatically destined to lose. It’s not ideal, but they did beat a legitimate Penn State team on the road while Christmas struggled. And, the defense kept Xavier in check long enough for Christmas to get hot in the final minutes of the A-10 semifinal Friday night.
Again, the Owls have the talent to make some noise. By talking with the players, the will appears to be stronger than it was last year, too.
“We definitely have a whole new attitude,” Christmas said. “Last year, I felt we held onto that [A-10] Championship a little too long. We took it over to Denver with us, not expecting what Michigan State was going to throw at us. But we’re definitely going to be prepared this year.”
“Last year, after we won the [A-10], I think guys just settled for that,” Inge added. “I think this year guys are getting up to go down there and actually win games and compete a lot better than we did last year.”
Inge cited the difference between the Owls’ postgame celebrations after they clinched the A-10 in each of the last two years. Last season, the Owls were full of elation, having clinched their first NCAA berth since 2001. Last week, their celebration was more subdued, realizing there was more work to be done.
There’s a lot of work, actually.
There are no breaks now. The Owls will have had four days to prepare for sophomore guard James Harden, senior forward Jeff Pendergraph and the Sun Devils, but those four days also will be filled with heightened media obligations and travel time.
As Christmas pointed out, that can be a bit distracting. And, playing against the best teams in the nation, a team can’t afford to lose its focus.
“You’ve got to be ready to come play,” Brooks said. “Every team is team fighting for survival to get to the next round. Every team is great.”
The greats head back to the airport. The greater advance, maintaining those same smiles the Owls displayed after hearing their name announced on CBS Sunday night.
John Kopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.