A week before Temple’s season opener against the University of Pennsylvania, the Owls talked with excitement about their inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference.
Junior guard Will Cummings called the team’s upcoming season “a showcase every night.” Redshirt-junior forward Anthony Lee said while the team will face hardships, he thought they could “respond in a good way.” The American provided the program with increased exposure through several nationally televised games against numerous elite opponents – including Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati and Connecticut.
Coach Fran Dunphy tempered expectations.
“There’s a little bit of fear as to how we’re going to handle all of that,” Dunphy said.
Temple’s season ended last Wednesday night in the first round of The American tournament in Memphis, Tenn., as the team fell to Central Florida 94-90 in double overtime. After four months in which the Owls gathered a 9-22 record – the program’s third worst winning percentage in its 118-year history – Dunphy’s preseason warning appears to have been justified.
The eighth-year coach, however, continues to emphasize the pride he holds in his team.
“There was never any quit in them,” Dunphy said. “I thought their attitude throughout a very trying and challenging season was very good. Was there frustration and disappointment on occasion? Yeah, there sure was. But I thought they fought through it as much as they possibly could do.”
Their possibilities were limited this season in part by a recruiting class that consisted of two eligible players – freshman guard Josh Brown and freshman forward Mark Williams – to replace the roster spots vacated by last year’s departing class of T.J. DiLeo, Scootie Randall, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, Jake O’Brien and Khalif Wyatt.
The result was a roster that consisted of 10 student-athletes – the smallest in the conference. The group shrunk to nine when sophomore forward Daniel Dingle had season-ending surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee after suffering an injury during a Dec. 29 practice.
The Owls were also plagued this season by an underperforming defense. Out of 345 teams in the country, Temple ranked 330th in points allowed per game with 78.1. In The American, the team ranked last in blocked shots and second-to-last in defensive rebounding.
“We’ve talked about it, certainly as a team, and I’ve mentioned it many, many times,” Dunphy said about the defense. “It’s the one thing that I think we need to spend so much time on during the offseason and get to better spots. I don’t think it’s an effort thing, I think it’s just an anticipation thing. And we need to be better at it. We need a lot of work on our defensive play.”
Temple began its season with a Big 5 match-up against Penn at the Palestra on Nov. 9 – a game in which the Owls blew a second-half lead but escaped with a 78-73 victory. A pair of losses was soon followed by a pair of wins against Georgia and the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the Charleston Classic.
A victory against St. Joseph’s University on Dec. 4, followed by two one-point losses to Texas and Texas Southern, led to a match-up against LIU Brooklyn. The Owls blew out the Blackbirds, but it was the last time they would taste victory for more than a month. Temple kicked off its conference schedule with a New Year’s Day game at Rutgers, which began an eight-game losing streak.
The streak was broken with a home win against the Scarlet Knights on Jan. 29, but another four-game losing streak was right around the corner – the Owls lost to nationally ranked Villanova, SMU, Houston and Louisville.
A February home win against then-No. 23 SMU was one of the high points of the year for Temple, and the team finished the regular season strong with its first winning streak – back-to-back games against UCF and South Florida – before the conference tournament last week.
While the Owls failed to achieve double-digit wins this season, the sophomore class of Dingle, guard Quenton DeCosey and forward/center Devontae Watson all gained experience with drastically increased minutes from their freshmen years. As freshmen, Williams and Brown averaged 21.2 and 18.8 minutes per game, respectively.
Senior Dalton Pepper went out on a high note, averaging team-highs in minutes and points per game with 37.8 and 17.5, respectively. Cummings missed a handful of games due to a concussion, but led the team in assists and was second behind Pepper in points per game with 16.8.
Dunphy has one commit for next season in forward Obi Enechionyia. The team will also gain forward Jaylen Bond for the full season, who sat out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. Guards Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman are also on the roster, but the amount of eligibility they will have for next year has not been determined.
The American will lose Louisville and Rutgers after this year, but will gain East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa next season.
The “showcases every night” will remain. Whether the Owls can take advantage of such showcases with consistent victories remains to be seen.
“We are going to use what we learned this year – that sometimes we struggle – to get better as a group,” Cummings said.
“We’re going to get better and start working when we get back to campus,” Cummings added.
Avery Maehrer can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.