Temple men’s basketball battles AAC teams for postseason position

Temple can clinch its first first-round bye in the conference tournament since 2015-16 by beating Memphis on Tuesday.

Senior guard Shizz Alston Jr. (left) drives to the basket during the Owls’ 84-73 win against Tulsa on Saturday at the Liacouras Center. | JUSTIN OAKES / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Temple University has a chance to solidify its spot as one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference on Tuesday.

If the Owls (20-7, 10-4 The American) beat fifth-place Memphis on Tuesday, they’ll clinch a first-round bye in the conference tournament, which the Tigers (17-11, 9-6 The American) will host from March 14-17. The top four teams in the league earn first-round byes in the conference tournament, at which the Owls can improve their NCAA Tournament chances with a strong showing or clinch an automatic bid by winning.

Houston has already clinched a spot in the top four while four teams — Cincinnati, Temple, Central Florida and Memphis — are fighting for the final three spots. Temple hasn’t had a bye in the conference tournament since it won The American’s regular-season championship in the 2015-16 season — the last time the Owls made an NCAA Tournament appearance. 

Senior guard Shizz Alston Jr. understands the importance of Tuesday’s matchup and said the Owls need to start fast to beat Memphis.

“You have to know what you’re playing for,” Alston said after Temple defeated Tulsa, 84-73, on Saturday at the Liacouras Center. “It’s a little extra motivation to know that every game’s a championship game. With that being said, we just got to focus on ourselves right now and try to get as many wins as possible.”

A win against Memphis would give Temple a bye in the postseason tournament and, more importantly, a valuable opportunity to finish third in the conference. 

Temple is tied for third with UCF, with the Knights holding a head-to-head win against the Owls. Both teams have two more conference losses than second-place Cincinnati (23-4, 12-2 The American). 

By finishing third, Temple would avoid a potential conference tournament matchup with Houston (26-1, 13-1 The American), the first-place team in The American, until the championship game on March 17. This season, Temple split its two matchups against the Cougars, the No. 8 team in the Associated Press Top 25.

The final stretch of games features several top-four teams facing each other, which could alter the standings. Houston, Cincinnati and UCF (20-6, 10-4 The American) play each other one more time before the season ends.

However, positioning in the top four might not be decided until each team’s season finale. 

Temple and UCF play at the Liacouras Center on March 9, while Cincinnati hosts Houston on March 10 to potentially decide the regular-season conference champion.

Temple could finish anywhere from first to sixth place in the conference depending on win-loss results. 

Houston, Cincinnati, Temple and UCF are all projected to make the field of 68 NCAA Tournament teams, according to CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm’s potential field from Monday morning.

To prepare, Alston checks other teams’ records, the conference standings and what experts say the Owls’ NCAA Tournament chances are as the season winds down, he said.

“I [check projections] every day because it’s a tournament that I really want to get to play in,” Alston added. “So I’m constantly checking scores and how we compare to the rest of the teams. But I know that we have to do our part first and win every game to put us in a good position.”

Temple had a week without games before Saturday’s home win against Tulsa. Coach Fran Dunphy gave the Owls three days to rest and get fresh to finish the season strong, he said.

“We need to plan for a whole different type of game at Memphis,” Dunphy added. “We got a lot of studying to do, a lot of work to do before Memphis. But I do believe that we gave them the right amount of time off.

“We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Alston said.

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