“Tournament-or-bust” Owls taking a negative record into conference play

After a disappointing performance outside of conference play, Temple needs to dominate the AAC.

Redshirt sophomore guard Khalif Battle has been the uninventive leader for the Owls, only making 14 of his last 45 baskets. EARL KUFEN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

During a preseason media availability on Oct. 4, Temple Men’s Basketball guard Damian Dunn described the 2022-23 Owls as “tournament or bust.” After a 6-7 non-conference slate, Temple is on the bust side of the redshirt sophomore’s proclamation. 

The Owls were on a four-game winning streak before visiting The Palestra on Dec. 10. With a win at the University of Pennsylvania (6-7, 0-0 Ivy League), Temple would’ve clinched its first outright Big 5 championship since 2009-10. However, Temple lost by 20 points as junior guard Jordan Dingle scored 30 points for the Quakers and broke the single-season record for points in the City Series.

The loss began what is now a three-game losing streak for Temple, including a loss at the University of Mississippi (8-4, 0-0 Southeastern Conference) and a defeat in a home buy game against the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (5-7, 0-0 The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference). The Hawk’s Dec. 20 win at The Liacouras Center is the team’s only win in eight away games this season. 

Dunn missed the second half of that game with a head injury and was seen being helped out of The Liacouras Center while wearing sunglasses. It was a bad day for Temple’s overall resume as Ole Miss lost a buy game earlier that day to the University of North Alabama. 

“Top teams in the country that we want to compete with come together,” said sophomore forward Zach Hicks. “I think we’re struggling to do that right now.”

Temple has played uninspiring basketball during this losing streak, and it’s been led by the struggling performance of shooting guard Khalif Battle. The redshirt sophomore is Temple’s leading scorer and has been the only consistent perimeter player for the Owls this season. However, he has entered a slump of his own recently, making only 14 of his last 45 shots, including six of his last 27 from three.

Battle is averaging nine three-point attempts per game during the losing streak, which is not the best way to reverse his recent string of poor play. Though the preseason all-conference guard is a gifted scorer, not everyone can shoot themselves out of a slump. Many times, players just need to see the ball go through the net to regain confidence, which means getting to the rim for layups and, in the best case for shooters, drawing fouls to get into a rhythm at the free throw line.

The painted area is also cause for concern for Temple right now as the Owls currently are missing a presence down low. The team will be without sophomore center Jamille Reynolds for more than a month as he had surgery to repair his right thumb days after the loss at Penn. 

The big man was averaging 11.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this season, becoming the first reliable post-up option that Temple has had during head coach Aaron McKie’s tenure. Without Reynolds, Temple is back to playing centers that can’t create shots for themselves, shrinking driving lanes and forcing the Owls to take more jumpers.

“It’s something that’s been bothering him since the beginning of the season,” McKie said. “It got to the point where we had to address it.”

Temple now enters a conference schedule where the Owls are playing for a top five seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament. Temple’s only chance at making the NCAA Tournament is by winning the AAC championship, which is made easier by securing a top five seed and only playing three games during the conference tournament.

McKie is also in the fourth year of a five-year contract at Temple and has yet to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Last year was the only time that McKie had a winning record; he and his team set high expectations for themselves coming into this season, but they most likely won’t meet them. Despite this season’s struggles, McKie seems to still have the confidence of his players as they enter conference play.

“I know you all might point fingers at our coaching staff, it’s not their fault,” Battle said. “As players, we’ve got to come out and be ready to play. They do a great job of preparing us.”

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