Talk about your big weeks.
The men’s basketball team picked up two key road wins last week over Saint Joseph’s and Duquesne, improving its record to 15-9 overall and 7-3 inside the Atlantic Ten Conference.
But, almost more importantly, the wins put the Owls squarely on the bubble in the NCAA Tournament discussion.
The two victories last week were almost similar, as in both, the Owls fell behind early, chipped away and then used a big run to take a commanding lead. The problem was Thursday at the Palestra against the Hawks, the Owls couldn’t hit any free throws down the stretch.
A 10-point lead with 54 seconds to go turned into a two-point lead with five seconds left, but St. Joe’s junior guard Tasheed Carr missed his running 3-pointer, and the Owls hung on for dear life with a 61-59 victory over their archrivals.
Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Owls used a 12-3 late second-half run to beat Duquesne in a game that was a back-and-forth contest after the Owls rebounded from an early nine-point deficit. But, the story of the contest was freshman guard Juan Fernandez, who played 31 minutes and scored a career-high 19 points.
With those wins, the Owls moved into a tie for third place in the A-10 standings with St. Joe’s, a game and a half behind co-leaders No. 16 Xavier and No. 25 Dayton and a half a game ahead of Rhode Island.
Positioning inside the A-10 will be key for the Owls, as they need separation between themselves and the teams on the next peg of the conference ladder.
Basically, if Temple finished 12-4 in the A-10, then they would need the likes of St. Joe’s, Rhode Island and Duquesne to finish 10-6 or 9-7. That shows the selection committee the Owls are clearly in line with Tournament teams like Xavier and Dayton, and not with NIT teams like the aforementioned Hawks, Rams and Dukes.
With their RPI currently at 34 and their strength of schedule at 31, the Owls have a good enough résumé to warrant discussion for an at-large bid. But, with upcoming tilts against lowly Fordham and slightly less lowly St. Bonaventure, both of those computer numbers will most likely go down, regardless of the outcome.
Still, the Owls can boast about wins over Penn State on the road, then-No.7 Tennessee at home and even last week’s pair of victories, as both St. Joe’s and Duquesne entered the week with RPIs below 100. The fact that both came away from home is huge, as winning on the road in the A-10 has been no easy task this year (just ask Xavier).
The Owls’ 75-68 victory at La Salle Jan. 11 didn’t seem that big at the time but looks pretty good now, as the Explorers knocked off St. Joe’s Saturday at the Palestra and currently stand at 5-5 in the conference.
Despite all those things, none of it will matter if the Owls can’t take care of business in these next three games — all of which are at the Liacouras Center.
Losses to Fordham tomorrow night, St. Bonaventure this Sunday or La Salle Feb. 26 would cripple, if not end, any at-large bid talk for coach Fran Dunphy’s squad. They especially need those games with a road showdown against Dayton looming Feb. 28 — a team that just beat Xavier, stands at 23-3 overall and is projected by most to be in the NCAA Tournament.
Winning that game could take the Owls off the bubble and put them in, but with these two road victories last week, there is room to spare. A loss to the Flyers wouldn’t kill the Owls’ chances. All it would give them no margin for error.
The good thing for the Owls is that with the way the A-10 Tournament looks to be set up as of now, they’ll get another shot at Dayton in the semifinals — but this time on a neutral court in Atlantic City, N.J.
While that may be looking too far ahead, the Owls now know they’re going to be in the discussion come March. It looked bleak just a few weeks ago, but they withstood tough road challenges and didn’t slip up at home.
But there is no time to bask in any glory, as there is still plenty of work to do. And that begins tomorrow at 7 p.m. against Fordham.
Todd Orodenker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.