Men’s basketball team hopes to stay afloat in tough A-10

For the first time in years, the Atlantic Ten Conference is home to some of the most competitive basketball in the nation and three games into its conference schedule, Temple has shown it can keep

For the first time in years, the Atlantic Ten Conference is home to some of the most competitive basketball in the nation and three games into its conference schedule, Temple has shown it can keep stride with the league’s highly-touted teams.The Owls ripped off back-to-back conference wins last week, upsetting No. 23 Xavier at the Liacouras Center Wednesday and outlasting St. Louis on the road in a 54-53 overtime victory Sunday, to improve to 2-1 in the A-10. Temple’s only slip-up came in a close 60-58 loss to Charlotte on the road on Jan. 12.”It’s a great building stage [for us] going into A-10 play,” senior guard Mark Tyndale said after the Owls 78-59 victory over Xavier. “The A-10 is very strong this year.”Sure enough, the road isn’t going to get any easier for the Owls (8-8, 2-1 A-10) in the upcoming weeks.A home date with St. Joesph’s (10-5, 2-1) Saturday and matchups with Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Dayton await, but nearly all of Temple’s remaining conference games have the potential to be contentious affairs as the A-10 is loaded with high-caliber teams this season.Along with Xavier (15-4, 3-1), No. 16 Dayton (14-2, 2-1) is also ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll while and Rhode Island (15-3, 1-2) fell out of the rankings this week. Through Sunday, four A-10 teams – Dayton, Xavier, Massachusetts (13-4, 2-1), and Rhode Island – are ranked in the top 25 of the rankings (RPI, the Rating Percentage Index, measures strength of schedule and how a team performs against that schedule). Two other A-10 squads – St. Joseph’s and Duquesne (11-5, 1-2) – placed in the top 60 of the Web site’s rankings.If this type of progress continues throughout the remainder of the season, the A-10 could potentially send more than two teams to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004, when Richmond, St. Joseph’s and Xavier were selected to participate in the Big Dance. That year, top-seeded St. Joe’s and No. 7-seed Xavier both reached the Elite Eight.Temple coach Fran Dunphy acknowledged the A-10’s strength after the Owls win over Xavier last week.”The conference has been spectacular and we talked about it before the game,” Dunphy said. “There are three Top 25 teams and there’s another four or five teams that are right on the cusp . . . I think the league is poised to have a great year.”The league started the season off on the right foot.The A-10 has won 64 percent of its 185 non-conference games this season, its highest winning percentage since the 1993-94 campaign.”Our non-conference record as a league speaks for itself,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.Less than a month into conference play, the level of competition within the league is as fierce as ever; each of the 14 A-10 teams already has at least one conference loss.Like Xavier, top-ranked Dayton and Rhode Island were also upset in conference play last week. Massachusetts knocked off Dayton, 82-71, on the road last Wednesday and St. Louis defeated visiting Rhode Island, 68-61, the following night.A-10 Commissioner Linda Bruno, who was in attendance at last week’s Temple-Xavier game, said parity within the conference is “wonderful to see.””You don’t like to see anyone lose, but it’s just a symbol of the strength of our league when you have a nationally ranked team like Xavier come in here and play and get beaten,” she said.In her 13th year as commissioner, Bruno said she isn’t surprised with the conference’s progress this season.”We’ve been young for the last couple of years,” Bruno said. “We’ve been right on the edge of being very, very good, and this is the payback. Our coaches and our schools have scheduled very appropriately and I think that’s really helped us get national recognition . . . From top to bottom, we’re pretty good.”So far this season, it appears that on any given night, any A-10 team can pull out a victory. This clich├ęd expression can only benefit an Owls team that finished 10th in the A-10 with a 6-10 record last season.After playing their final non-conference game of the season against Dunphy’s former squad, Penn, Wednesday night, the Owls continue conference play with a showdown against another city-rival, St. Joseph’s, Saturday at the Liacouras Center.The Hawks hold a four-game winning streak over Temple and have won 11 of the last 12 contests in the series. St. Joe’s defeated Temple, 66-62, in the opening round of the 2007 A-10 Tournament last March in the last meeting between the two teams.Two weeks after playing the Hawks, the Owls face a crucial stretch when they host Massachusetts and Rhode Island and visit Dayton, in back-to-back-to-back contests over a six-day span in the middle of February.With a tough path ahead, the Owls can take solace in the fact that they’ve turned at least one opposing coach into a supporter.Miller said Temple is on the verge of recapturing the type of success that enabled the men’s basketball program to win six A-10 Championships under former coach John Chaney. The Owls haven’t won an A-10 title since 2001.”I think it’s just a matter of time before Temple regains the national prominence that they had,” Miller said. “It’s going to take a couple of years [for Dunphy] to get his system in place and recruit his type of players. It sure looks like some of the guys he has in the program right now fit the way he’s playing.”TEMPLE 54,SAINT LOUIS 53 (OT)The Owls refused to suffer a letdown after defeating No. 20 Xavier last week, the biggest win of Dunphy’s two-year tenure with the team.Temple held on to defeat Saint Louis, 54-53, in front of 9,341 at the Scottrade Center Sunday.Junior guard Dionte Christmas led the Owls with 20 points, 15 of which came from behind the three point line. Christmas went 5-of-12 from beyond the arc. Freshman forward Lavoy Allen registered eight points and eight rebounds, and senior guard Mark Tyndale added seven points while dishing out five assists.Aided by Tyndale’s career-high four blocks, the Owls put forth a solid defensive effort, holding the Billikens to 38 percent shooting. As a team, the Owls blocked eight shots and accumulated five steals.”Guys are buying in a little more,” Dunphy said regarding the team’s progress on the defensive end. “Hopefully it will continue.”St. Louis junior guard Kevin Lisch’s basket tied the game at 49 with 31 seconds left in the second half and the Owls failed to score on their next possession.However, Temple went on a5-0 run at the start of overtime, capped off by Chris Clark’s three-pointer at the 3:56 mark. Four free throws weren’t enough to help the Billikens, who didn’t score a field goal in the extra period, get the win. NEXT UPTemple will host its Big 5 rival and Dunphy’s former team, Penn (5-11 overall), at the Liacouras Center Wednesday at 7 p.m.The Quakers won last season’s highly anticipated contest, 76-74, at the Palestra last January. It was the first meeting between the two teams since Dunphy left Penn to become Temple’s coach on April 10, 2006.Dunphy compiled a 310-163 record during his 17-year tenure at Penn.Temple has won three of the last four meetings between the two squads and leads the all-time series, 40-22.The Quakers have yet to win a game against Temple at the Liacouras Center. Penn is 0-4 at the 10-year-old arena.Tyson McCloud can be reached at

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