Temple is back where it belongs.
The men’s basketball team made the NCAA Tournament by winning the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship last weekend in Atlantic City, N.J.
It’s the second straight year the Owls have made the NCAA Tournament and the 28th time in school history. They are the No. 11 seed in the South region and will face No. 6 Arizona State Friday afternoon at approximately 2:45 p.m. in Miami. If the Owls win, they’ll face the winner of the No. 3 Syracuse/No. 14 Stephen F. Austin matchup in the second round Sunday at 12:10 p.m.
When Temple’s name was announced at the selection show party the university threw Sunday evening, it sent off a frenzy in the Fox-Gittis Room of the Liacouras Center.
Needless to say, the Owls were a happy bunch when they saw their name on the screen.
“You can’t even describe it. You have chills running down your spine,” said junior guard Ryan Brooks, who was named to the A-10 All-Championship team. “When you hear your name, it’s exciting for the program, your teammates, coaches, everybody. It’s thrilling.”
Perhaps the most animated reaction belonged to the most recognizable name in cherry and white: senior guard Dionte Christmas.
The team’s co-captain lit up the scoreboard for an A-10 leading 19.2 points per game this season. Christmas was also named the Most Outstanding Performer of the A-10 for the second straight season and was named to the All-Championship team.
“We heard our name, and everybody was overjoyed,” he said. “I just can’t wait until Friday.”
Christmas talked amongst fans, alumni, family and students, who lined up behind the Owls as they sat and watched the selection show on CBS. All the members of the team donned black Temple basketball polos, with Christmas front and center and leading the pack.
The 6-foot-6-inch guard got antsy and more talkative as the show dragged on, and when Temple’s name was finally announced (they were the last team to be called), there were plenty sighs of relief in the building.
“We knew our name was going to be called eventually, but it was definitely nerve-racking waiting,” Christmas said.
Coach Fran Dunphy wasn’t even in the room. He snuck off to watch the show elsewhere so his players could have the spotlight. Even with the privacy, the Owls’ levelheaded leader wasn’t concerned.
“There’s so many other things you can worry about,” Dunphy said.
Like Arizona State.
That Friday matchup with the Sun Devils will pit the Owls against sophomore guard James Harden, who led the Pacific-10 Conference in scoring with 20.8 points per game.
“I know James Harden is one of the best players in the country. I know [coach] Herb Sendek well,” Dunphy said. “[Arizona State] will be very well-prepared, and we’ll have our hands full.”
Last year, the Owls, seeded 12th, fell to fifth-seeded Michigan State in the first round, 72-61. To fare better this time around, the Owls will have to play more as a team, sophomore forward Lavoy Allen said.
“Everyone has to be in the flow of the offense,” said Allen, who recorded 13 double-doubles this season.”
“If everyone gets in the flow of the offense, it’ll free Dionte Christmas up and get him easier shots.”
That kind of team effort is something the Owls have generally given all season, despite the fact that Christmas scores at the pace that he does.
Still, the Owls know they’re playing in an NCAA Tournament game. And even with all the attention, pressure and sets of eyes on them, this is supposed to be fun.
“I’m excited,” Allen said. “I can’t wait to go down there and play Arizona State. It’s what we’ve been waiting for all year, to be in the NCAA Tournament.”
Judging from the scene at the Fox-Gittis Room, students and fans felt the same way.
“Our fan support is amazing,” Allen said. “Without them, I don’t know where we’d be. I don’t think we’d be A-10 Champs without them. They make Temple basketball.”
“It’s great. It’s great for Temple basketball,” Brooks said. “It’s great for the alumni, all the Temple supporters who’ve had our back all year. We’re going to go out there and represent this program to the fullest.”
But the players know it’s truly on them as they head into the NCAA Tournament. And even though they’re going to an attractive town like Miami, it’s not to check out the sights and sounds.
“Miami sounds good, but I’m not going out there for vacation,” Christmas said. “I’m going out there to put in some work. I’m going out there for business.”
Todd Orodenker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.