Owls relying on conference tourney after three-game skid

After losing all momentum in the second half of their Feb. 5 loss to Houston, the Owls are looking for answers.

After losing three-straight games, the once tournament-or-bust Owls are now back to square one. | ROBERT JOSEPH CRUZ / THE TEMPLE NEWS

After a four-game winning streak that had Temple undefeated in Quadrant 1 games and only a half game behind No. 2 Houston (23-2, 11-1 American Athletic Conference), the Owls have lost three straight and their momentum has vanished.

Fresh off an eight-day hiatus, Temple (14-12, 8-5 AAC) looked to complete a sweep of the Cougars at The Liacouras Center on Feb. 5. With no football being broadcasted and the game being televised on ESPN, all eyes were on the Owls.

Temple took a four-point lead into halftime, led by redshirt-sophomore guard Khalif Battle’s 11 points at the time. Then, Houston scored 13 unanswered points to start the second half en route to a 16-point blowout.

Houston simply took advantage of Temple’s greatest weakness: its starting lineup. The Owls’ starters consist of four defenders and a streaky shooter in sophomore forward Zach Hicks. Hicks is the only one in the unit shooting better than 30 percent from three-point range.

Next to him is a frontcourt of sophomores Jahlil White and Nick Jourdain, along with graduate center Kur Jongkuch, all of which cannot score outside of the painted area. Rounding out the unit is sophomore point guard Hysier Miller, a traditional floor general without great athleticism or strong scoring ability.

With that unit starting the second half, Houston, a program that has been to a Final Four, Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in the last three NCAA Tournaments, took total control of the game.

“Well, I think it is something we’ve been fighting all year long,” said Temple head coach Aaron McKie. “Like most people, good things happen and you get excited. You get more energy and effort. When that didn’t happen for us in the second half – if guys made a mistake or missed a shot – they just dropped their heads. And we just couldn’t find a way to get out of our own way.”

The Houston rematch was the first sellout crowd the Owls had all season. The school ran its first White Out promotion of McKie’s tenure and was looking to capitalize off the team’s momentum.

However, the score of the game led to Temple fans exiting the building before the game’s final media timeout. All of a sudden, the team that struggled to put butts in seats failed to capitalize on the opportunity to impress their fans enough to keep them coming back.

“That’s what’s really upsetting,” Battle said. “We don’t really get a crowd like that. We got a crowd like that and I feel like we disappointed the crowd. You never know when you’re going to get a crowd like that again.”

Temple then traveled to Southern Methodist (9-17, 4-9 AAC) on Feb. 8 to rebound from the Houston game. Instead, the Owls allowed a 19-2 run by the Mustangs to start the game and lost 72-71 to fall to 5-5 in Quadrant 3 games.

In March, the NET ratings, an analytical system to rank teams based on the quality of their opponents, begin to define teams. As of now, the NET does not favor Temple at all. With a NET of 115, Temple is well out of both the NCAA Tournament and National Invitation Tournament bubbles.

After Sunday’s nine-point loss at Memphis (19-6, 9-3 AAC), a game in which the Tigers led by double digits for most of the second half, the Owls are now 3-2 against Quadrant 1 opponents. Temple is also 0-3 against Quadrant 2, 7-5 against Quadrant 3 and 4-2 against Quadrant 4 – with both losses being home buy games.

Temple has now equaled its 2021-22 loss total of 12 games and, for the fourth season in a row, will not make the postseason unless it wins the AAC Tournament. The Owls still hold a top-five seed in the conference standings, giving them a first-round bye as it stands. However, it sets them up for another date with the Cougars if the Owls win their second-round game.

Considering the team’s performance last week, looking ahead that far is reckless. In their final five games, the Owls will play the two teams directly below them and the two teams directly above them in the conference standings. 

“We certainly have to have better starts to the games,” McKie said. “We certainly have to have better starts to the second half. Take a look at it and see if there’s something that I can do differently to help with that.”

In just seven days, the Owls went from NIT hopefuls with a chance in the conference tournament to being back to square one. 

Temple will look to get back on track against Wichita State (13-12, 6-7) on Thursday night at Liacouras.

Want an inside look into stats for players on Temple Men’s Basketball? Click here to check out TTN Sports StatHub, your home for key statistics about how the Owls are performing on the floor. 

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