Temple University men’s basketball (15-9, 8-5 The American Athletic Conference) will need to rely on its defense to secure a first-round bye in the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
The Owls rank third in the conference for blocks and second for rebounds but only rank tenth in points per game. It has been their defense, not their offense, keeping them in the hunt for a top-five AAC seed.
After a major 64-57 win at home against Southern Methodist University (19-6, 10-3 The American) on Feb. 16, the Owls need to continue this form to have a chance at playing well into March.
Against SMU, the Mustangs were without leading scorer senior guard Kendric Davis while the Owls were without starting guards redshirt-freshman Damian Dunn and freshman Jeremiah Williams.
“All of our guys out there contributed in a big way on the defensive end,” said head coach Aaron McKie after the game.
Dunn and Williams are the Owls’ best scorers, but Temple still defeated SMU by holding them to a tied-for season low 57 points. SMU averages 75 points per game on the season.
Late in the second half against SMU, freshman forward Jahlil White, who leads the team in defensive rebounds, was tasked with guarding senior guard Michael Weathers, who finished the game with 22 points. White prevented him from getting to the paint while Temple was leading by a small margin, forcing a bad miss with less than two minutes remaining and securing the key win.
“I knew if we were gonna stop him, we were gonna win,” White said. “Putting my foot down, battling, I could get the stop.”
White has been the team’s best defensive player this season with 25 steals, 18 blocks and many key defensive plays late in games. Between White, Williams and freshman forward Nick Jourdain, they have held other teams leading scorers to minimal points all season.
One instance came against SMU in their first matchup on Jan. 29, where Davis was held to his second-lowest scoring total at that time. Another came in a 61-58 defeat against the University of Cincinnati (17-10, 7-7 The American) on Jan. 25 as junior guard Jeremiah Davenport was held to only nine points.
Temple secured a second victory against Cincinnati on Feb. 20, after overcoming a late surge from the Bearcats.
In the first half, the Owls played solid defense, preventing any sort of Bearcats run. They held Cincinnati’s two leading scorers, Davenport and senior guard David DeJulius, to seven and four points respectively.
Redshirt-junior guard Tai Strickland and White got into foul trouble early in the second half, which limited their minutes down the stretch. Without their two better defenders on the team, Temple immediately struggled to prevent Cincinnati from scoring.
Yet once again, it was the Owls’ early defensive possessions that won the game.
So while Temple has the intangibles to guard some of the best teams in the nation, they continue to struggle on the offensive end.
In the conference, the Owls rank 10th in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Even if Temple racks up a large lead, its inconsistent offense has allowed opponents to go on runs late in the second half, while the Owls are struggling to knock down shots.
While their defense has kept games close, the Owls are not built to outscore teams, as seen in its 92-83 overtime loss against Tulane University (12-11, 9-5 The American) on Feb. 12.
That being said, there are players stepping up in key moments, like freshman forward Zach Hicks, freshman guard Hysier Miller and Strickland.
“I believe anybody can step up,” Strickland said.
Right now, the Owls sit at fifth place in the conference. Yet they have their toughest stretch of games this season with half of their remaining four games on the road. The coaching staff is aware of their position in the standings, but is taking things one game at a time, Mckie said.
“We need all of the wins,” McKie said. “We continue to play catch-up.”
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