Shizz Alston Jr. was ‘unfazed’ when the American Athletic Conference announced the preseason coaches’ poll and Temple University was selected to finish sixth. It actually reminded him of his freshman year.
That year, Temple won The American 2015-16 regular-season title with a 14-4 record in conference games, and finished 21-12 overall, after being selected sixth in the preseason poll. The Owls earned an NCAA Tournament berth, their last to date, losing to the University of Iowa, 72-70 in the first round.
“I know we’re capable of doing the same this year,” the senior guard said at the conference media day on Monday.
“Do we have the wherewithal [compared to 2015-16], we shall see,” coach Fran Dunphy said. “But, I believe we do.”
Players and coaches didn’t put too much stock in the preseason poll, which isn’t always an accurate predictor of final results. Only six of The American’s 12 teams finished where the preseason poll predicted. Memphis was projected to finish ninth in last years poll but finished in fifth at the end of the season.
“The standings at the end of the year mean much more than the standings now,” said Central Florida coach Johnny Dawkins, whose team was selected first in the poll. “This conference is so deep you can really put any six in the top-six and I wouldn’t be surprised. Our league is that good. …The thing is you have to go out there and compete to earn your position by the end of the year.”
Senior center Ernest Aflakpui, who was part of the same recruiting class as Alston, said Temple emphasized holding on to leads and winning close games to repeat what happened in the 2015-16 season. In the 2017-18 season, the Owls went 17-16, 8-10 in The American. Temple led at halftime in five of their 16 losses and lost five games by four points or less.
“In practice, we do end of game situations a lot more than we did last year,” Aflakpui said. “We want to win as many games as we can, and putting more focus on finishing games we think will help.”
Dunphy is optimistic about his team before his final season as the Owls’ coach. He expects Temple’s four sophomores — forwards, J.P. Moorman II, De’Vondre Perry, Justyn Hamilton and guard Nate Pierre-Louis — to step up this year after gaining “valuable” experience last season. Perry played 31 out of 33 games, Moorman and Pierre-Louis played 27, while Hamilton saw action in 11. Pierre-Louis and Perry both started once.
“Oftentimes the best teams are the most experienced teams,” Dunphy said. “Their level of experience, I think, puts us in a great position. … those sophomores will play a prominent role in what we are doing.”
“[The sophomores] have a taste of how it feels to win and how it feels to lose,” Aflakpui said. “I have seen people grow and mature from freshman year to sophomore year and so on, and they have definitely matured into this year. … so experience is going to play a big role for us this year.”
Junior guard Quinton Rose was named to The American’s preseason all-conference first-team. The 6-foot-8 guard averaged 14.9 points-per-game shooting 43.4-percent. He declared for the NBA draft preceding his sophomore year and worked out with the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, and New York Knicks.
“I am hoping [Rose] will have the best year he ever could have,” Dunphy said. “He is making great strides defensively and rebounding the ball. He is shooting the three better than he ever has. I see a new and improved Quinton Rose, and we need him.”
“[Rose] has a bright future in this game,” Dawkins said. “I have enjoyed watching him play and develop the past couple years. … You don’t find many players of that caliber in the country, so he’s a unique player.”
In their six seasons in The American, Temple was selected to finish sixth four times, including this season, seventh last year, and fifth in the 2013-14 season. The Owls finished higher than the preseason poll predicted twice. They placed third in the conference when selected sixth before the 2014-15 season.
“Temple is a storied program and has [finished sixth in the preseason poll] before,” Dawkins said. “They have a coach that has been in this position and knows what he is doing. They’re a team that is going to be very good again this year. … They have young players that are more than capable of stepping in and producing at a high level.”
“[Temple] never gives up,” Memphis junior forward Kyvon Davenport said. “They’re going to fight the whole time no matter if they’re down or they’re up, they are always going to play and compete to their fullest. … [Temple is] a great program, and you can’t look over them.”
FULL PRESEASON COACHES POLL