Assistant coach Bill Ellerbee joked center Keith Butler was kept together with scotch tape, Band-Aids and any other adhesive bandage the team could find.
Forward Antywane Robinson was hampered with a sprained ankle just as the men’s basketball team was in the middle of its infamous late season surge.
And Maurice “Mardy” Collins? He was only learning how to play a new position, the most important position in coach John Chaney’s system – point guard.
One year later, Butler, Collins and Robinson have been elevated to sophomore status, where petty fouls, not covering the weak side and setting a screen too high are no longer tolerated. Not when they’ve had the summer to learn each other’s habits.
Aside from lone senior David Hawkins, how the sophomore trio responds to another stacked schedule and potential early season struggles will help dictate what postseason tournament will extend an invitation to Temple.
“We don’t do well when we’re trying to learn,” Chaney said, “and our kids knew they had a lot to learn.”
Now they’re a bit grown up, and Collins thinks the team is on the right page and can avoid the last minute run at the NCAA Tournament.
“I think it could take quicker than it took last year,” he said. “Guys have been up here all summer for classes and we’ve been playing with each other all summer and that’s helped us to learn each other’s game.”
Butler, a 7-footer, started all 34 games last season, despite coming to Temple after not playing the previous year at a prep school. He blocked 64 shots but only averaged 5.4 rebounds. Robinson came from the high profile Oak Hill Academy and was the Owls’ most versatile player until going down with an ankle sprain against North Carolina State in the middle of February.
Butler (250 lbs.) and Robinson (210 lbs.) both hit the weight room during the summer and worked closely with the team’s strength and conditioning coaches. Both played pick-up games religiously throughout the city.
Butler polished his post moves and is gaining the confidence to use his jump hook shot. Robinson worked on driving to the basket and playing with his back to the hoop. Last season he could be seen drifting atop Chaney’s match-up zone defense or hitting the low blocks with some of the Atlantic Ten’s big guys.
“It’s a mental aspect, saying, ‘I can do that, I can go down and bang with the best of them,'” Robinson said. “It’s kind of a confidence thing.”
Of the three sophomores, Collins showed the most composure on the court as a freshman. He had played forward most of his high school career at Simon Gratz under Ellerbee and, though he made some mistakes, was never afraid to step up in the clutch. One problem he saw in his game was his jump shot and not squaring up to the basket properly.
But Ellerbee said Collins picked up the point guard position like he was meant for it; Hawkins said he’s as good as any McDonalds High School All-American to come through last season.
Hawkins even compared he and Collins’ relationship to that of former Owls’ Aaron McKie and Eddie Jones, whom both play in the NBA.
“That’s what we’re trying to base it on, how they knew each other so well,” Hawkins said. “It feels like Mardy and I click like that.”
When McKie and Jones were Temple’s 1-2-punch, they made it to the Elite Eight. It only goes to show how much experience really counts.
“Coaches can talk until they’re blue in the face,” Chaney said. “But until the kids grab and seize that moment themselves and believe what you’re selling, you’re going to struggle and that’s what happened last year.”
But just because they’re sophomores doesn’t mean they’re know-it-alls.
Chaney still hollers at Collins for something he does wrong in practice, even when Collins thinks he did something right. All three have been humbled by the experience and credit Hawkins for his insight on the nuances of Temple basketball.
Hawkins is the team leader; Butler, Collins and Robinson are the centerpiece. Not all teammates are as close knit as these three and that’s a reason why hopes are high again for the Owls.
“I think everybody can see their talent,” Ellerbee said. “They just have to start playing together as a team and start feeling each other as a team. And as soon as that happens, I think you’re going to see some real nice things.”
Chris Silva can be reached at email@example.com.