After the 86-78 overtime victory against Central Florida last week, Fran Dunphy was extolling the virtues of the American Athletic Conference, saying that it was a tough league since five teams – Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, Connecticut and Southern Methodist – have been ranked for a large portion of the season.
“They are really good basketball teams and hopefully we will get five teams in there,” the coach said.
“Hopefully, we’ll get six teams in the NCAA tournament,” he added.
The Owls (9-21, 4-14 The American) are entering the tournament on their first winning streak in more than three months after topping UCF and South Florida – the latter a 66-65 win thanks to a buzzer-beating basket from sophomore guard Quenton DeCosey.
Temple has the No. 8 seed in The American tournament and will have a rubber match with the No. 9 seed, UCF, on Wednesday.
“At this point in the year, it’s certainly far better than losing a couple of games coming in,” Dunphy said after the USF game. “We’ll have a tough task on Wednesday night … We hope our mindset is good enough at this point.”
Junior guard Will Cummings has been the team’s best player against UCF this season. He scored 31 points on 14 shots in the first game, a 78-76 UCF win, and 23 points on 11 shots in the second match-up. He had three steals in each game and went a combined 18 for 20 from the foul line.
“Just going in strong into the conference tournament … you never know what could happen, really,” Cummings said. “You can string together some wins, and there you go.”
One key for the first round game will be winning on the boards. In UCF’s win, the Knights won the rebounding battle 41-27. In Temple’s win, the Owls outrebounded the Knights 36-30 and were buoyed by a 19-7 advantage on the offensive glass. UCF is third in The American in rebounding margin, while Temple is last.
Redshirt-senior guard Dalton Pepper has been leading the Owls as of late. He is averaging 19.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in the past seven games. In that stretch, he led the team in scoring four times and scored 20 points or more five times. He led all scorers with 26 points and grabbed six rebounds in the win against UCF, which was Senior Night.
“Even though we’ve lost some tough games and it’s been a rough season, we’re still focusing in and trying to end the season on the right note and get a few wins in the conference tournament, because then you never know what can really happen,” Pepper said.
Should the Owls get by the Knights, they will face top-seeded Cincinnati in the second round. The Bearcats got that spot by winning a tiebreaking coin toss with Louisville, the second seed.
Temple lost at Cincinnati 69-58 and at home to the Bearcats 80-76. If a third game happens, the Owls will need to focus on stopping senior guard Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged 26 points a game against Temple this year.
To win the tournament and squeak into the NCAA tournament, Temple will need to win four straight games, which it hasn’t done all season.
“I would say [this season has] been a struggle, but I think these guys have kept their attitude and their way pretty solidly,” Dunphy said. “I think they’ve done a good job. There just has been some frustration, certainly from all of us but I think for the most part, I’m very proud of how they have kept their focus to go to game-to-game. There have only have been a few times where we have just been hammered.”
Evan Cross can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @evancross