Despite losing in its first game of the conference tournament, Temple was awarded a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Owls will face the No. 8 North Carolina State Wolfpack in the opening round game to be played Friday at the University of Dayton Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 1:40 p.m.
Temple (23-9, 11-5 Atlantic 10 Conference) will be squaring off against the Wolfpack (24-10, 11-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) in the East region. The top-seeded team in the region, Indiana, would be matched up with the winner of the Temple game barring an historic upset.
“We need to go out there and value the opportunity that we have,” senior guard Khalif Wyatt said. “We have a great opportunity to do what we have dreamt about doing, which is making the NCAA tournament and winning some games and making a run.”
The at-large selection, while anticipated, was not a given. The Owls won their final seven games of the regular season before falling to Massachusetts in their opening conference tournament game for the second year in a row.
“[Losing to Massachusetts] was disappointing, we feel like we let down a lot of people,” sophomore guard Will Cummings said. “It happened in back-to-back years where we didn’t do what we needed to do in the A-10 tournament. We are going to put that behind us and focus on Friday.”
When speaking to gathered students and fans at the university-hosted event on Sunday, March 17, coach Fran Dunphy echoed Cummings sentiments that the Owls knew they had let people down by losing to Massachusetts.
The 79-74 loss on March 15 following seven consecutive wins was similar to last season, in which Temple won 13 of its final 14 games leading up to the A-10 tournament. Like this year, the Owls were unable to conquer the Minutemen in 2012, falling in the team’s opening round game despite being the higher seed.
The loss in the A-10 game last year was followed with a 58-44 loss in the first game of the NCAA tournament. The players know that this year’s outcome against Massachusetts screams déjà vu, but claim their attention is focused solely on what needs to happen on Friday.
“We have to come out with the first punches in the game,” redshirt-sophomore forward Anthony Lee said. “We have to give [NC State] our best shot right away. We can’t play to them, we have to play to our level. If we do that we will have the opportunity to win that game and play some more.”
The admittance into the NCAA tournament may have come as the biggest relief to graduate forward Jake O’Brien. A Boston University transfer, he made it clear from the beginning of the season that he came to Temple to reach the NCAA tournament for the first, and last, time in his collegiate career.
“That’s why I came here, to make the NCAA Tournament,” O’Brien said. “It was a great feeling to get our name called but that’s not the ultimate goal. We still have our work cut out for us and I think everyone is really anticipating this game.”
Aside from O’Brien, Wyatt and senior forwards Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Scootie Randall, along with graduate guard T.J. DiLeo will all be making their final appearance in the NCAA tournament. With each game the Owls play, they know that a loss means an end to college basketball.
“I don’t want to think about it right now, but all these games could be my last games,” Wyatt said. “There could be no tomorrow, so we are trying to make it as memorable as possible.”
Temple trails the Wolfpack 6-1 in the all-time matchup between the two schools, yet the teams haven’t met in more than 10 years. The biggest task that NC State presents is containing junior C.J. Leslie.
The 6-foot-9-inch forward weighs in at 200 pounds and leads the Wolfpack with 14.9 points per game. While O’Brien and Lee, both 6 foot, 9 inch, outweigh Leslie by 20 and 30 pounds, respectively, the Owls have had trouble dealing with opposing teams’ big men in the past.
“Leslie is a spectacular player and we will have our hands full,” Dunphy said.
Despite the loss to Massachusetts, Temple seems to have come together since its loss at home to Duquesne on Feb. 14. The Owls won seven straight after the once seemingly season-ending home loss to the Dukes. The stretch included a win against No. 21 Virginia Commonwealth University as well as NCAA tournament bound La Salle. The Owls average margin of victory over the stretch was 9.6 points.
“Right now we are really playing good basketball,” O’Brien said. “[Massachusetts] was a setback that we are going to try and avoid, but there’s nothing we can do now except build on it.”
With five players on the team playing for the last time in their collegiate basketball careers, Temple will look to make a run on basketball’s biggest stage.
“If we come to play and we execute everything will just take care of itself,” Randall said. “We have a great team here and I think that will carry us a long way.”
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ibrahimjacobs.