When Quenton DeCosey and his teammates walked off the floor at the Liacouras Center on Jan. 2 after a 27-point loss to Houston, a trip to the NCAA Tournament looked unlikely only 12 games into the season.
The 77-50 rout on the Owls’ home court dropped Temple to 6-6 at that point in the season. But after the game, DeCosey had a plan to turn things around.
“It starts with practice tomorrow,” the senior guard said at the postgame press conference. “Get a couple hard practices in, challenging each other, then we go away to [Connecticut], we gotta come out from the beginning playing hard.”
Starting with a win against UConn three days later, the Owls won 14 of their next 18 games, the last of which came Sunday in a 64-56 win against Tulane.
The Owls finished the regular season 20-10 and 14-4 in the American Athletic Conference. Sunday’s win against the Green Wave made Temple The American’s regular season champion—the program’s first regular season championship since winning the Atlantic 10 Conference crown in 2012.
“After losing a game like [Houston], I think it motivated us,” sophomore forward Obi Enechionyia said after Sunday’s win. “We knew we had to pick it up if we wanted to grab a championship.”
“This is a culmination of a lot of comebacks, a lot of hard work over the summer,” he added. “For us to finally get a championship for the regular season is big.”
The Owls are the No. 1 seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament in Orlando, Florida from Thursday to Sunday. Temple plays the winner of No. 8 East Carolina and No. 9 South Florida at noon on Friday.
If the Owls win, they will meet the winner of No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 5 UConn in the semifinals. The winner of the conference tournament will automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
“We got a lot more work to do,” junior guard Josh Brown said after the Owls clinched the The American tournament’s No. 1 seed with a win against Memphis on Thursday. “We just want to continue to win games and make our bid for the tournament.”
“Our work is never done,” senior forward Jaylen Bond added Thursday. “Our goal is to win the conference then win the conference tournament.”
While the Owls are proud of their accomplishment of winning the conference’s regular season title, Temple’s goal since Selection Sunday, when the 68 teams for the NCAA tournament are announced, last year has been to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.
Temple finished last season 23-10 with an 8-8 record against the Rating Percentage Index Top 100 teams, including a win against nationally ranked Kansas, but missed an invitation to college basketball’s most coveted postseason tournament.
“Every game is important,” DeCosey said after the Memphis win. “Last year we could’ve got one win against SMU or beaten Tulsa one time and we’d probably be in the tournament. … We have to go into every game with same mindset, be together and try to come out with a win.”
Last year, the Owls struggled when facing the top teams in the league. The team went 1-5 against the Top 3 teams in The American, losing to Southern Methodist twice before falling to the Mustangs again, 69-56, in the conference tournament semifinal.
This year Temple has had much more success against the top tier of the conference. The Owls are 7-2 against Southern Methodist, Tulsa, Houston, Cincinnati and UConn—the five teams immediately below them in The American’s standings.
“We’ve beaten all the teams at the top, so we know that we can do it,” Enechionyia said. “We’ve beaten every team, so we know … we can stand up against any team in the conference.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.