The men’s basketball team looks to win its third straight Atlantic Ten Championship for the first time in school history.
Massachusetts won five consecutive Atlantic Ten Conference titles from 1992 to 1996 with coach John Calipari and forward/center Marcus Camby.
In the history of the A-10, no other university has won more than two consecutive men’s basketball titles.
In the mid-1980s, Temple won the A-10 title in 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990. Saint Joseph’s took the title in 1986, and Rutgers, which is now affiliated with the Big East Conference, won it in 1989. Xavier broke the Owls’ attempt at a three-peat in 2002.
The men’s basketball team will try to break that streak this season, as coach Fran Dunphy and the Owls attempt to win their third straight title minus seniors Dionte Christmas, Sergio Olmos and Semaj Inge and with just two starters returning from last year’s squad.
Given that, the A-10 preseason coaches’ poll picked the Owls to finish fifth in the conference this season.
“I think that would be to our advantage if [other teams] are doubting us,” senior guard and captain Ryan Brooks said. “We have guys who have an extreme amount of confidence and who can get the job done. We knew that this time would come, when certain players would leave who have contributed a lot to the program, and we would have to step up. If teams are doubting us, that’s motivation for us.
“But of course, we’ve got a target on our back,” Brooks added. “It’s something we welcome, and it’s something we’re kind of used to now. We’re definitely looking forward to the challenge. People want to beat Temple. Back-to-back championships are not something that other teams are very happy about, and we want to keep that statement in our heads as motivation.”
In addition to junior forward Lavoy Allen and Brooks, who finished second and third, respectively, on the team in scoring last season, sophomore guard Juan Fernandez begins his first full season at point guard this year.
In 23 games last season, Fernandez averaged 5.5 points per game, 2.7 assists per game and 1.7 rebounds per game.
“He’s played a lot of basketball. That’s the biggest issue early on for me is how much to push him,” Dunphy said. “He went right from our program at the end of the year to playing on the national team. He’s got a lot of basketball in him. I think the biggest thing for me is that when you’re the point guard, you need to set the tone defensively and keep everybody in front of you. That’s the biggest concern. His offense will take care of itself. He’s a very good jump shooter. He’s also a pretty good decision maker, although he tries to do some things that sometimes I wish he wouldn’t do.”
Senior guard Luis Guzman will most likely spell Fernandez, Dunphy said, and sophomore guard Ramone Moore should also see time.
“That’s what Ramone Moore does. He scores,” Dunphy said. “His issue is his defense. As much as you score, you still have to stop the other team. Our philosophy is that if you give me something at one end, we’ll give you something at the other.”
Though freshman Khalif Wyatt projects as a scoring threat, Dunphy said freshman Rahlir Jefferson could see playing time first because of that emphasis on defense.
“I think Rahlir is a little bit ahead of everybody else in that he brings a defensive presence to the game,” Dunphy said. “When you can guard, you can be out there on the court. You have an absolute role right away.
“Carmel [Bouchman] is a solid basketball player who knows how to play. He’s just got to get bigger physically and learn the American game a little bit,” Dunphy added. “Chris Clarke is learning our style of play, and he’ll be a good rebounder. Of course, we’ll need scoring contributions from [junior forward] Craig Williams and [sophomore forward/center] Micheal Eric as well.”
In addition to juggling his lineup, Dunphy will also attempt to three-peat against what he called “arguably the No. 1 non-conference schedule in the country.”
“We’ve got a test for us every single night.”
The Owls open the season Saturday at noon at Delaware. During the months of November, December and January, they will face three preseason Top 25 teams – No. 1 Kansas, No. 5 Villanova and No. 20 Georgetown – as well as preseason No. 27 Siena, not to mention three teams who competed in the National Invitational Tournament – Virginia Tech, Bowling Green and NIT champion Penn State.
“I hope Kansas stays at No. 1 until we play them,” Allen said. “I’m excited for those types of teams and to be on national TV. Playing teams like that makes it easier to play in our conference. We look forward to it.”
“Whenever you play a caliber of team like a Kansas, Georgetown, Siena, you play them to get ready for the conference regular season because that’s pretty much the heart of the season. That’s when it matters,” Brooks added. “Going up against those types of teams is definitely going to prepare us mentally and physically for the A-10.”
The conference portion of the schedule kicks off on Jan. 6 at the Liacouras Center versus St. Joe’s. The Owls get preseason No. 21 Dayton and Xavier at home this year.
“Those are two very tough places to play at, and the last two years there, we haven’t won at either of them,” Allen said. “So, that’s huge having them here instead of going on the road.”
By the time the A-10 portion of the schedule rolls around, Dunphy will have a set lineup in place. For now, though, he said he has pretty much only penciled in Allen and Brooks and likely Fernandez.
“Do you start Ramone Moore? Do you start Michael Eric? Do you rotate in Luis Guzman?” Dunphy said. “Like [Philadelphia Phillies manager] Charlie Manuel, it’s not something I think about that much right now.”
Jennifer Reardon can be reached at email@example.com.