March proves Temple has a future in The American

With four future conference rivals having postseason success and the hiring of a new coach that specializes in recruiting Philly players, Temple basketball has a future once again.

With the incoming AAC basketball teams having postseason success, Temple basketball may have a future in the American Athletic Conference. | ROBERT JOSEPH CRUZ / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston announced they’d be leaving the American Athletic Conference to join the Big 12 in 2023, Temple fans thought the Owls would soon be out of place. 

The conference was losing one of Temple’s long-time rivals in Cincinnati, its best basketball program of the past decade in Houston and a 2019 NCAA Tournament team in UCF.

Temple, historically a basketball school under coaches like Harry Litwack, John Chaney and Fran Dunphy, was seemingly stuck in a conference with one regional rival in East Carolina and a bad basketball future.

Owls fans doubled down in their belief of being out of place – at least basketball-wise – in October 2021 when The American announced the addition of six teams from the weaker Conference USA: Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio. 

At the time of the announcement, UNT only had four tournament appearances in its program’s history. FAU had one in 2002 before ending its drought this year, and Charlotte made an appearance three years later. UTSA has only gone dancing four times, most recently in 2011,  with UAB appearing in 2015. Rice hasn’t qualified since its fourth ever in 1970.

Each of those schools were known for football, which AAC commissioner Mike Aresco acknowledged when introducing them to the league.

Aresco has previously mentioned that the AAC teams were primarily in football hotbeds, but the schools still provided good basketball. However, football is looked to for conference success, Aresco said. 

Fast forward to this past March, and the narrative about The American’s future has completely changed. 

Charlotte won the College Basketball Invitational, UNT beat UAB – the 2022 C-USA representative in the NCAA Tournament – in the National Invitational Tournament championship game and FAU made it to the Final Four in the big dance.

Only one player on FAU’s roster is ineligible to return next season. Of the players eligible to return, all but three have two years of eligibility remaining, giving the team a fighting chance to run it back for years to come 

However, FAU wasn’t the only team with a connection to Temple in the Final Four. On the other side of the bracket was Miami, making its first-ever Final Four appearance. 

In their second season since new Temple head coach Adam Fisher’s departure, the Hurricanes have been led, in part, by two of Fisher’s recruits: Isaiah Wong, 2018 Philadelphia Catholic League champion from Monsignor Bonner & Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School Isaiah Wong, and Nisine “Wooga” Poplar, 2020 Philadelphia Public League Champion at Mathematics, Civics, and Sciences Charter School.

During former head coach Aaron McKie’s tenure, Temple struggled to successfully recruit players from the Philadelphia area. However, Fisher didn’t have that problem at either Miami or Penn State.

While at Miami, Fisher helped the Hurricanes build their program with players from the Philadelphia area.

In 2017, former Princeton Day School guard Davon Reed was drafted 32nd overall by the Phoenix Suns. The next year, former Reading High School guard Lonnie Walker IV was selected 18th overall by the San Antonio Spurs. 

Considering Temple has only had two players selected in the NBA Draft since 2006, supporters of the program will be pleased to see that type of recruiting success coming to North Philly.

At Penn State, Fisher helped the Nittany Lions recruit its best-ever class for the 2022-23 season — which included Jameel Brown, a two-time Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association champion, and Demetrius Lilley, a two-time Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association champion. 

The Nittany Lions had another top-30 recruiting class for 2023-24 – a first in the program’s history. However, several of their recruits either decommitted or asked out of their letters of intent when former Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry left for Notre Dame on March 22, and Fisher left for Temple. 

Now, Temple has two postseason tournament champions, an NIT runner-up and a Final Four team that lost on a buzzer-beater joining its conference, and a head coach that specializes in the program’s biggest weakness taking the reins of its program.

Temple University may have lost its president on Friday, but its basketball team just gained a sense of direction.

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