For coach Fran Dunphy, Temple’s move to the American Athletic Conference this season is accompanied by two emotions.
Excitement is one of them. After spending more than 30 years in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Owls will be on a new stage – one with bigger schools that will provide increased exposure for the university.
But with the team losing five of its Top 7 leading scorers from last year, the timing of the move sparks the other emotion: apprehension. Temple is scheduled for home and away games against Connecticut, Memphis and defending national champion Louisville. The Owls will be doing all of this with 10 eligible players.
“There’s a little bit of fear as to how we’re going to handle all of that,” Dunphy said.
Out of the 10 teams in the conference, the Owls were picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll. After losing Scootie Randall, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, T.J. DiLeo, Jake O’Brien and leading scorer Khalif Wyatt to graduation, Dunphy said three players will need to step up: junior guard Will Cummings, redshirt-junior forward Anthony Lee and redshirt-senior guard Dalton Pepper.
“Leadership comes in a lot of different ways,” Dunphy said. “It’s not always what you say, but more importantly what you do. I think those three guys are very solid citizens. They understand what life is about. They understand what teams are about. I think they’ve done a good job at this point leading us up to our first game.”
Cummings said he doesn’t believe the departure of five men from last year’s team will be problematic, as losing players to graduation is an annual occurrence. The conference transition, however, is another story.
“We’re playing all of the heavyweights, all of the big names everyone wants to see play,” Cummings, the team’s top returning scorer, said. “We’re not playing the Saint Louises, we’re playing the Louisvilles. We’re coming out every practice, making sure we’re working hard and playing strong because we know it’s a different conference, different rules.”
Pepper,played for the first time last year since his 2010-11 season at Big East Conference school West Virginia. He came off the bench in every game last year but looks poised to receive one of the starting lineup spots. Pepper averaged 2.9 points per game last season, but said his confidence level is a lot higher this year than when he made his Owls debut.
“I know I’ve got to play better in every aspect of the game,” Pepper said. “Just coming out ready to go every game and giving whatever coach asks for.”
Lee averaged 9.8 points per game last season, which ranked third on the team behind Wyatt and Randall. Lee calls the new conference, “a showcase every night.” The challenge of competing in such showcases remains.
“I think we might respond in a good way,” Lee said. “We’re a young team so we’re probably going to get down, but we have the will to fight back. We’ve got some good veterans with me, [Pepper] and Will so I think we can really help the team a lot.”
The Owls welcome two freshmen to the roster this season in guard Josh Brown and forward Mark Williams. Sophomores Daniel Dingle, Quenton DeCosey and Devontae Watson will return. Dunphy said all of the underclassmen will be expected to play and contribute, as this year marks what he believes to be the biggest challenge since his first season with Temple in 2007-08.
“We have a rotation that I think will be OK if we do everything we need to do,” Dunphy said. “But we don’t have a lot of margin for error.”
The Owls’ offseason was highlighted by an overseas trip during the weeks that preceded the fall semester. Williams and Brown donned their Temple uniforms for the first time as the Owls played teams in Paris, Monaco and Rome. The experience was more than just about food-tasting and sightseeing.
“I think we were blessed to have gone to Europe this summer,” Dunphy said. “I think it helped us in trying to form who it is that we are. That doesn’t mean we’re flawless. It just means that we know each other’s warts a little bit, so we can figure out what to do on some occasions and what not to do on others. But I think that we’re a good group together. I think they like each other. I think they care for each other. I think they respect each other.”
Even with a young team, Dunphy’s coaching philosophy remains the same as in past seasons.
“It’s still nuts,” Dunphy said. “You’re still coaching every bounce, you’re getting on guys when they make bad plays and you’re complimenting when they make good plays. If you’re a young kid from 18 to 20 years old, you’re only remembering the negative ones.”
“You know what’s really great?” Dunphy added. “They sit down in that seat and see the film. That film doesn’t lie.”
Temple will open its season with a Big 5 match-up against University of Pennsylvania this Saturday at the Palestra. Dunphy coached Penn for 17 years before joining Temple’s staff. Penn’s current head coach, Jerome Allen, played for Dunphy with the Quakers from 1991-95 where he became one of the program’s all-time leading scorers.
“The game against Penn is the one where if you said to me, ‘You didn’t have to play one,’ I’d probably choose them,” Dunphy said. “For obvious reasons – one is that I coached there for so long. The other is that the guy who was so instrumental in my career, Jerome Allen, is now the coach there. But that’s on me, that’s not necessarily on our players.”
The Owls will also play in Big 5 match-ups against St. Joseph’s on Dec. 4, La Salle on Jan. 18 and Villanova on Feb. 1. The team will compete in the Charleston Classic as well, kicking off the tournament against Clemson on Nov. 21. Temple’s schedule in The American will begin in a New Year’s Day road trip to Rutgers. The Owls will get their first shot at taking down defending champion Louisville at the Liacouras Center on Feb. 13.
Dunphy said the schedule appears to be the toughest one he has faced. For Cummings and others on the team, the move to the new conference and the challenges it brings are a source of motivation.
“It’s college basketball,” Cummings said. “You want to play the big names and play on TV. That motivates you. If you need any other motivation, I don’t know why you’re playing college basketball.”
Avery Maehrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.