Temple University men’s basketball had a long, quiet plane ride on Friday night.
After losing to Wichita State in the American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinals, the Owls questioned their NCAA Tournament fate while traveling home, coach Fran Dunphy said.
But on Sunday, Temple learned it earned an at-large bid, and relief and excitement filled the Owls’ locker room in the Liacouras Center.
The Owls (23-9, 13-5 The American) will face Belmont University (26-5, 16-2 Ohio Valley Conference) in an NCAA Tournament play-in game on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio at 9:10 p.m. The two make the tournament as No. 11 seeds.
“I told them I had a big bear sitting on my chest,” Dunphy said. “The angst is overpowering, to be honest, so [Sunday] is a hard day. When you know you’re in, it’s the greatest day ever. When you know you’re out and have no chance, it’s the worst day ever. Somewhere in between, probably the worse side is when you’re unsure of what’s happening.”
Dunphy will make his 17th career tournament appearance in his final season as the Owls’ coach. His 17 appearances ties former Temple coach John Chaney for the most of any Big 5 coach. Dunphy has a career 3-16 record in the NCAA Tournament during his career at Penn and Temple.
Tuesday will be the Owls’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2015-16 season. The matchup will be the first time that Temple faces Belmont in program history.
The winner of Tuesday’s matchup will play the University of Maryland (22-10, 13-7 Big 10 Conference) on Thursday in Jacksonville, Florida at 3:10 p.m.
“I was hopeful that we might get a bye and not have to play in a play-in game, but as long as we are here, we can have fun with it,” senior guard Shizz Alston Jr. said Sunday.
Temple and Belmont each have three players who average more than 14 points per game and 25 minutes per game.
Alston, junior guard Quinton Rose and sophomore guard Nate Pierre-Louis account for 49.5 of Temple’s 74.8 points per game.
Three Belmont players — freshman center Nick Muszynski and senior guards Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain — combine to average 52.6 points per game. As a team, the Bruins average 87.4 points per game, which is second in Division I.
Both teams secured two Quadrant I wins this season. Belmont enters the tournament after losing the Ohio Valley Conference championship game to Murray State University on March 9. The Bruins are ranked 47th in the NCAA Evaluation Tool rankings.
Belmont went 2-2 in Quadrant 1 games, while Temple went 2-6. Games are rated Quadrant 1-4 based on location and opponent’s NET ranking. Teams are rewarded most for Quadrant 1 wins.
Belmont compiled a 1-2 record against teams in the 68-team field, splitting its two games with Murray State. During the regular season, Belmont fell to Purdue University, which is a No. 3 seed in the South Region.
Temple enters the tournament coming off an 80-74 loss to Wichita State in The American’s postseason tournament quarterfinals. The Owls didn’t advance in the conference tournament after earning a first-round bye as the No. 3 seed.
The Owls hope to use the loss to pick up on mistakes that cost them a victory, junior guard Alani Moore II said.
“That being our last game, that’s what we are pretty much going off of right now,” Moore added. “Going into this next game, we got to make sure we are on top of our game. We have a great team, we are playing a great team. All our toughness, motivation and effort is going to be the thing that puts us over the top.”
Temple hopes to improve on its rebounding after Friday’s loss, Rose said. The Owls allowed the Shockers to grab 16 offensive rebounds and score 12 second-chance points and 34 points in the paint.
If the Owls make a deep run in the tournament, it will also be because of team defense, Moore said.
As the regular season wound down, Temple had pressure to win as many games as possible to boost its tournament resume. This prepared the Owls for the NCAA Tournament’s single-elimination format, Rose said.
“We’ve had a slogan at the end of every huddle, we say that, ‘Every game is a championship game,’” Rose added. “Nothing changes from here on out.”