For a team that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament in three years, they realize time is running out.
In coach Fran Dunphy’s final season, Temple University hopes to return to March Madness for the first time since 2015-16. The season starts Tuesday night at the Liacouras Center against Big 5 rival La Salle, where Dunphy played and coached.
After this season, Dunphy will step away and associate head coach Aaron McKie, who played at Temple from 1991-94 and coached with Dunphy since 2014, will take over. McKie and the Owls’ two senior captains — guard Shizz Alston Jr. and center Ernest Aflakpui — want to give the winningest coach in Big 5 history one last run at the tournament.
“We definitely wanna make it sweet for him,” McKie said. “He deserves it. He’s a pillar at this university and in this community… That’s our goal, to send him out on top as a winner.”
The Owls went 17-16 last season and qualified for the National Invitation Tournament for the postseason, after missing both the NCAA Tournament and NIT the year before. Penn State beat Temple, 63-57, in the first round of the NIT on March 14.
The American preseason coaches poll predicted Temple to finish sixth this season after its 8-10 record and seventh-place result last year.
In The American’s five years, 15 teams made the NCAA Tournament. None of those teams had more than 12 losses or finished lower than sixth in the regular-season standings.
Temple will face seven teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, including Houston, Wichita State, University of Missouri, Cincinnati, Penn, Davidson College and defending Division I champion Villanova.
Temple needs to start winning close games and “beat the teams we are supposed to beat” to make the NCAA Tournament, Alston said.
Seven of Temple’s regular-season losses last season came in games decided by seven or fewer points. Temple also fell to two schools — Tulane and Connecticut — that finished below them in the American Athletic Conference.
Some of Temple’s late defeats were missed opportunities at wins that would have bolstered its NCAA Tournament resume. On Feb. 15, Temple lost 93-86 to nationally ranked Wichita State, after leading by 14 points at halftime. The Owls also lost to Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati, each game by single digits.
“In practice, we do end-of-game situations a lot more than we did last year,” Aflakpui said. “We want to win as many games as we can, and putting more focus on finishing games we think will help.”
Temple will rely on its four sophomores — guard Nate Pierre-Louis and forwards J.P Moorman II, Justyn Hamilton and De’Vondre Perry — who gained valuable playing experience in conference games, Dunphy said.
Perry appeared in 31 out of 33 games, Moorman and Pierre-Louis each saw action in 27 games, and Hamilton came off the bench in 11 games. Pierre-Louis and Perry each started once.
“Oftentimes, the best teams are the most experienced teams,” Dunphy said. “Their level of experience puts us in a great position.”
“[The sophomores] have a taste of how it feels to win and how it feels to lose,” Aflakpui said. “I have seen people grow and mature from freshman year to sophomore year and so on, and they have definitely matured into this year.”
Junior guard Quinton Rose was named to The American’s preseason all-conference first team. Rose is the type of player who can win games for the team on his individual efforts, Dunphy said.
Rose declared for the NBA Draft after last season, but did not sign with an agent, which allowed him to return to Temple.
“I have enjoyed watching [Rose] play and develop the past couple years,” said Johnny Dawkins, coach of Central Florida. “You don’t find many players of that caliber in the country, so he’s a unique player.”
Alston said if junior guard Alani Moore II has a better season, it will increase the Owls’ chances for success. Moore shot 41.4 percent from the field in 32 games as a freshman, but his field goal percentage dropped to 31.9 percent in 27 games last year.
“I want to get some team goals accomplished,” Alston said. “[I want to] make the tournament and make a deep run.
“We are more than capable of doing that,” he added.