As recently as two weeks ago, no one was foolish enough to voice the idea that this year’s Temple basketball team might make anyone forget about Pepe Sanchez and Mark Karcher.
Today, the sulking has ended, and these Owls are their own.
Temple was the surprise of the Preseason NIT, losing the championship to No. 1-ranked Duke, 63-61 last Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The game, nationally televised on ESPN, was the best of the young season in the whole country.
In a stroke of drama that has ESPN quaking near climax, the Owls will get another highly televised crack at Duke almost immediately, Dec. 2 at the First Union Center here in Philadelphia.
The excruciating aspect of the entire situation for Owls fans is that Temple almost had Friday night’s game against Duke. The Owls performed like a Final Four contender, and were one play away from beating a top-ranked team for the second season in a row.
“I spoke to them (the Temple players) and let them know that I felt like crying because I thought they played so well,” said Temple coach John Chaney. “It was something very special.”
The Owls held a 60-54 lead with 3:38 remaining after a three-pointer by junior forward Alex Wesby. The Blue Devils called a 30-second timeout, regrouped, and owned the game from that point on, thanks to sophomore point guard Jason Williams.
“When we went down by six and called time out, I thought from that time on we just played great basketball,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “We made play after play. Jason Williams really stepped forward, he just put us on his back.”
Duke center Carlos Boozer got a dunk of a pass from Williams and a lay up assisted by freshman Chris Duhon, cutting the Temple edge to two points with 2:40 to play.
Meanwhile, the Owls offense stalled. Junior Kevin Lyde missed a couple of open 15-foot jumpers late, and the Duke defense intensified its pressure on the Temple ballhandlers. That pressure resulted in a held ball with 2:30 left, with possession going to Duke.
On the ensuing trip down the floor, Williams made a fade-away three-point jumper with Temple’s Lynn Greer right in his face and the Duke-partisan crowd at the Garden erupted at the Blue Devils 61-60 lead.
Another Boozer layup off a Williams assist with less than one minute left sent Temple scrambling, and Duke clamped down. Greer intentionally missed the back end of a one-and-one with 1.6 second left, but Lyde’s putback wouldn’t go.
Boozer took home tournament MVP honors, largely due to his 26-point performance opposite Temple. No other Blue Devil scored in double figures, though Williams clearly was the difference in the game.
Most of Boozer’s points came on open lay ups produced by Duke’s dangerous perimeter game and by William’s consistent penetration of the Owl zone.
The Duke game was the first real test of Greer’s ability to play at point guard. According to Krzyzewski, both the Owls and Greer were every bit as tough as advertised and more.
“I think they put game pressure on you because they play you possession by possession,” Coach K said of Temple. “They control tempo very well. They get their shooters shots and Greer is outstanding. He controlled the game about as well as a guard has controlled us for quite a while.
“I like their team, and I really like that kid a lot. He’s very, very good – so poised.”
Greer’s 15 points led Temple, and he was the player most responsible for fighting off Duke’s full-court pressure defense early in the game.
Both coaches are looking forward to the rematch this coming Saturday in the City of Brotherly Love.
“I’m gonna get me a box of Tylenol next time,” Chaney said. “I’m just glad we’re playing twice. If we play as well as we did against them today, I hope that maybe the flip of the coin will go our way next time.”
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Krzyzewski said. “During November and December you’ve got to play great games. That’s really the only way to get better. They (Temple) may beat us, but that’s (Dec. 2) still going to be a great game.”
Temple breezed through its semifinal game against a post-Bobby Knight Indiana squad on Wedneday, leading all the way to a 69-61 win.
The game wasn’t even as close as the Owls’ eight-point margin of victory would indicate. Temple held a 20-point lead with less than 10 minutes left and the outcome was never in doubt.
Greer was 5-for-10 from the field, including 3-for-4 from beyond the arc and 7-for-7 from the foul line, for 20 point. More importantly, he flourished as a point guard, dishing out five assists and not a single turnover.
Chaney has been surprised at the often spectacular play of both his point guard and his team.
“I never had a point guard who was such a good shooter,” Chaney said of Greer. “I’m very surprised (at the team’s early success). Usually it taked until about January before we start looking like a team.”
Temple dropped a 45-point bomb on the Hoosiers in the first half to put the game away early. For a team that has always relied on defense, that’s a gargantuan half of offense.
“I’m not used to this,” Chaney said. “I’m used to a point here and a point there. I can’t coach like this.”
Indiana came into the game 2-0, having beaten Pepperdine and South Alabama in first and second-round games in Bloomington, Ind., but didn’t play like one of the most successful programs in college basketball history.
“We came out without any effort,” first-year coach Mike Davis said. “We didn’t play and we didn’t fight. To beat a team like temple you have to fight.”
Davis a lame duck?
Indiana kept reeling after the Temple loss, falling to Texas without a struggle in the Preseason NIT consolation game Friday night.
The Hoosiers’ problem is not necessarily talent — they feature more than a few former McDonald’s All-Americans – but lack of focus. This team was put together under the assumption that it would be disciplined by Bobby Knight, and Davis doesn’t wield anywhere near the same clout with the players.
After both defeats, Davis was visibly upset. He rarely made eye contact with post-game interviewers, choosing the stare blearily down at the stat sheet on the table in front of him. After both post-game press conferences were over, he remained at his seat on the dais long after the reporters had left and the bright lights had been turned off, a man very much alone.
“It’s tough times right now,” he said after the Texas game. “I knew we weren’t a tough basketball team. They (the Indiana players) didn’t know we weren’t tough.”
Davis and the Hoosiers are going to need to be tough, as well as thick-skinned, to weather the inevitable backlash of rabid Indiana basketball fans. If the situation continues on its current arc, Davis will be gone after this season.
Look for Davis’ situation to possibly worsen along with that of the Boston Celtics of the NBA. Before the pro season began, Celtics coach and GM Rick Pitino claimed that he would “fire himself” if Boston didn’t make the playoffs, reaffirming that intention after a recent loss the 76ers.
The Indiana job could be the ideal returning point for Pitino, the college coaching wizard who took Providence to the Final Four in 1987 and Kentucky to a national title in 1996.
Owls gaining national respect
Temple’s dramatic challenge of top-ranked Duke and nationally-televised romp over Indiana apparently made an impression on the national pundits, as the Owls jumped into both major Top 25 polls for the first time this season.
Temple came into the two games at MSG ranked No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ Poll and unranked in the Associated Press Poll. But the Owls strong showing bumped them up to No. 15 in the Coaches’ and No. 17 in the AP, which is about where they were when they took down No. 1-ranked Cincinnati last February.
If the Owls can avoid an upset at Miami (Ohio) Friday night, they’ll get a chance to break into the top ten with a toppling of the Blue Devils at the First Union Center Saturday night.
Coaches pitch for preseason tourneys
The NCAA has been taking a close look at exempted preseason tournaments like the Preseason NIT, the Great Alaska Shootout and the Maui Invitational, among others, with an eye toward getting rid of them.
One of the complaints is that programs schedule the tournaments instead of big-time non-conference game at their home buildings, a practice which some argue weakens those teams.
The coaches, however, vehemently disagree.
“Somehow, in figuring out what’s best for college basketball we need to recognize that in these exempted contests, especially the NIT, what you have is an opportunity for people to play big games that might not be scheduled if you don’t put them in this situation,” Krzyzewski said. To have big time games on neutral courts gives people a chance for early-season upsets.”
Chaney, true to his style, was less dimplomatic.
“The ADs (NCAA athletic directors) are very selfish,” he said. “They want more games in their own place to bring in more money.
“This is a great tournament,” he said of the Preseason NIT. “When we’re invited, you can bet I’ll be here.”