Despite winning 13 of its first 16 games, Temple University has yet to play its best, players said.
The Owls (13-3, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) are having their best start since the 2010-11 season, including two road comebacks and defeating a nationally ranked team. But players said they have a lot more they can do once they figure out how to play their hardest for each of the 40 minutes per game.
On Saturday, Temple led by as many as 17 points against South Florida. But it took overtime for the team to eventually earn an 82-80 win at the Liacouras Center.
And on Wednesday against nationally ranked and previously undefeated Houston, senior center Ernest Aflakpui took a last-second charge to secure Temple’s 73-69 victory. Before Aflakpui erased the Cougars’ potential game-tying basket, the Owls surrendered an eight-point lead and allowed Houston to have an opportunity to tie the game with seven seconds left.
Temple hasn’t played consistently well throughout a game yet this season and sometimes blowing leads, senior guard Shizz Alston Jr. said after Saturday’s win
“When we do, we are going to be a really scary team to play,” he said.
“Everybody, individually all haven’t had good games at the same time,” junior guard Quinton Rose said. “We’re still putting it together, just chipping away at it. I think it’s coming soon.”
Despite Alston’s assessment, the Owls are a top-50 team in the Division I NCAA Evaluation Rankings and have quality wins.
Temple defeated nationally ranked Houston, came back from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat Wichita State on the road and defeated a potential tournament team in Davidson College after trailing by eight points at halftime.
Alston leads the Owls on the offensive side of the ball with 19 points per game. The Owls have not yet seen their top three scorers — Alston, Rose and sophomore guard Nate Pierre-Louis — all play to their highest capabilities at once, Rose said.
In the Owls’ 82-64 win against Drexel on Dec. 22, for example, Alston, Pierre-Louis and Rose finished as the team’s top three scorers, but Rose shot 6-for-19 from the field and 0-for-4 from 3-point range.
“When all three of us have a good game, the whole team has a good game,” Alston said. “Then we could be one of the top teams in the country. The good thing is that we haven’t done that yet and we are still 13-3. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
“Most of the time, it’s two of us,” Rose said. “One of us struggling, two of us struggling, one of us carrying the load. Other times, it’s Shizz carrying the load. Once we all get going at the same time, I think we’ll be pretty tough to beat.”
The Owls’ 31.7 3-point percentage is down from 35 percent last season. Despite the shooting dip, Temple is averaging five more points per game compared to last season, thanks to its consistent defense, Alston said.
Last season, Temple’s opponents committed 12.7 turnovers per game with the Owls scoring 12.9 points off them. This season, Temple has forced 3.1 more turnovers per game and averages 19.6 points per game off its opponent’s mistakes.
The Owls’ “buy-in” has been more evident on the defensive side of the ball compared to previous years, assistant coach Shawn Trice told The Temple News on November 2018.
Since the first day of summer practice, the team has wanted to be dominant on defense, Rose said. Like the team, Rose has seen his shooting percentage drop, but he has been part of the Owls’ defensive efforts.
Rose’s shot 43.4 percent from the field in 2017-18. Through the first 16 games, his field goal percentage is 40.4. But without his shot, Rose has found his defensive edge, he said.
His 2.63 steals per game is tied for 11th in Division I. Rose has at least one steal in each of the 16 games the Owls have played this season.
“The coaches always tell me if that my shot’s not falling, there are still other ways that I can impact the game,” Rose said. ”Defense is something that’s completely under my control, so I try and ball out on that end, especially if I’m not feeling it on offense.”
Alston believes a vital part of the Owls’ success has come from their efforts on the defensive side of the ball.
“With [Pierre-Louis] hopping into the lineup this year, him pressuring the ball has gassed us all up,” Alston said. “Ernest behind us, knowing that he has our backs, we can gamble a lot more than we can in the past. [Rose] is one of the top in the conference in steals. We are just putting it all together on defense.”