Temple Men’s Basketball (1-2, 0-0 American Athletic Conference) entered the season with high, self-imposed expectations. The Owls labeled themselves as “tournament-or-bust,” and are trending closer to the bust side as each day passes.
With disappointing home overtime losses to Wagner College (2-1, 0-0 Northeast Conference) and Vanderbilt University (1-2, 0-0 Southeastern Conference), Temple’s Nov. 11 win against now unranked Villanova University (2-1, 0-0 Big East) seems irrelevant.
Here’s what’s to know about the Owls from their three games so far:
It’s clear that Temple is missing the defensive intensity of point guards Jeremiah Williams and Tai Strickland, who combined for 51 steals last season. In March, the two transferred to Iowa State University (2-0, 0-0 Big 12) and Georgia Southern University (1-2, 0-0 Sun Belt Conference), respectively.
So far this season, Temple is allowing teams to score 76.33 points per game this season and shoot 48.4 percent against them. Out of 11 teams in the American, those rank 10th and 11th, respectively. The team’s best defender, sophomore forward Jahlil White, has fouled out of two of the first three games without contributing offensively. White is averaging 1.3 points per game this season.
“We’ve got to do a lot of rerouting and refocusing on what we take pride in and what we believe is most important,” said redshirt sophomore guard Damian Dunn after the loss to Vanderbilt. “We’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”
Temple allowed 89 points on 54.3 percent shooting, including 9-for-18 from three, in that game. The Owls fell victim to three 18-point or higher scorers against Vanderbilt, and the Owls were awful at communicating through screens. Once the game went into overtime, just like the Nov. 7 game against Wagner, Temple lost because they didn’t know how to execute defensive stops.
Temple also had no answer for graduate transfer center Liam Robbins. The seven-footer had 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting as neither of Temple’s centers Jamille Reynolds or Kur Jongkuch could stop him down low.
Reynolds has done what Temple has asked of him, rebounding the ball and scoring on the low block. Jongkuch, however, looks like another transfer portal swing-and-miss. Aside from the two blocks he had against Vanderbilt, Jongkuch hasn’t contributed much on defense.
Furthermore, the Owls are essentially playing with four guys on offense when Jongkuch is on the floor because he doesn’t add anything on that side of the ball. He’s currently averaging two points per game.
The Owls have shown that they can score. Dunn is currently the nation’s leading scorer at 29.7 points per game, and sophomore forward Zach Hicks showed signs of life with his 20-point performance against the Commodores. Redshirt sophomore shooting guard Khalif Battle was averaging 18.5 points per game before Tuesday night’s debacle.
If Temple starts playing defense, they can win games.
McKie Decisions Behind the Scenes
Before injuring his foot last season, Battle averaged 21.4 points per game as a starter, leading to him being named to the Preseason All-AAC Second Team for 2022-23. However, he now comes off the bench for sophomore point guard Hysier Miller, who shoots 36 percent from the floor for his career despite not being an aggressive shot taker.
Battle and fellow All-AAC guard Dunn are two of the three best players on Temple’s roster. Considering their talent and Battle plans on being drafted to the NBA, McKie’s choice to bench battle is hurting the team. The Owls will not come close to March basketball without Battle, and he has more than earned the right to demand a starting spot.
McKie is in the fourth year of a five-year contract so it’s almost decision time for Temple. He hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament appearance since taking over in 2019, soi McKie needs a tournament appearance if he wants a contract extension, and he can’t do it without Battle.
Temple’s chances at an at-large bid are decreasing. Wagner and Vanderbilt are two schools that won’t be dancing unless they win their respective conference tournaments. The Northeast Conference is traditionally a one-bid league, and Vanderbilt can’t compete in the SEC, which currently has six teams in the AP Top 25. Therefore, those losses will only hurt Temple’s tournament resume.
The Owls need to beat Rutgers University (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) at Friday’s Basketball Hall of Fame Showcase, and sweep the Empire Classic if they plan on keeping their at-large hopes alive.
Former Temple assistant Matt Langel led his Colgate University (3-1, 0-0 Patriot League) team to its second consecutive victory over Syracuse University (1-1, 0-0 BIG EAST) – Temple’s potential Tuesday night opponent – on Nov. 15, so Owls fans will be clamoring for a win.
“Come February, March, we’re going to look back and start pointing to these games,” McKie said. “It’s going to cost us. Big time.”
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