Although the men’s basketball team has suffered two losses in the Atlantic Ten Conference this month, Temple fans should be happy that Owls haven’t fallen into an even bigger hole come mid-January.
Despite missing two starters and having to play every game with undersized and inexperienced players since late November, the Owls’ record stands at 11-5. The team also already lists wins against two Top 40 Rating Percentage Index programs on their résumé.
While Temple has dropped Atlantic Ten Conference games to both Dayton (13-5, 3-1 A-10) and Richmond (11-7, 2-1 A-10) and suffered a loss at the hands of an inferior Bowling Green team (7-9), the Owls have also picked up key wins against A-10 foe Saint Louis (14-4, 2-2 A-10), Wichita State (15-3) and then No. 3 Duke (15-2).
So with 11 wins and five losses and an in-conference record of 1-2, add some impressive victories and a couple of bad losses, Temple has been good, but not great so far this season.
But it could, and probably should, be so much worse.
Injuries have been a problem for this team all season. Redshirt-senior center Micheal Eric has missed the last 12 games after re-injuring the same kneecap that kept him sidelined at the end of the season last year. Senior forward Scootie Randall hasn’t played at all while recovering from offseason knee surgery and is reportedly expected to redshirt the rest of the year.
In missing Eric and Randall, the Owls are without two of their most important players.
Randall is the Owls’ best perimeter defender and the team’s vocal leader on the court. Without Randall, Temple has been forced to look to its other senior starters for leadership, guards Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez, who are both better known for letting their play speak for itself.
The six-foot, 11-inch Eric is arguably the most valuable player to this team. It has been evident in his absence just how critical a part he plays on both offense and defense.
Redshirt-freshman Anthony Lee, who stands at six-feet, nine-inches has been thrust into the starting position at forward in an attempt to make up for the Owls’ lack of size. Eric was leading the A-10 in rebounding through four games at 11.3 boards a clip before his injury. Lee has averaged 7.1 rebounds in 16 games and has 10 times looked like the freshman that he is in the face of bigger and stronger competition.
Six-foot, six-inch junior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson has also had to adjust, playing at power forward when he is a more natural three guard.
But the Owls have made it work, thanks in large part to the work of coach Fran Dunphy and the emergence of junior guard Khalif Wyatt.
Dunphy has done a great deal to get the most out of the talent he’s had to work with during his five-year tenure with his team, but his performance so far this year ranks among his best.
Working with an undersized team and forced to start players at positions where they aren’t used to playing, Dunphy has out-coached the likes of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Villanova’s Jay Wright in wins this season.
Dunphy has often had to play four or five guards when Lee or Hollis-Jefferson get into foul trouble, and he has proven that Temple can beat teams while playing small ball.
Recently, the guard play has been led by Wyatt, who is having a breakout season in his junior year. Wyatt is trailing only Moore on the team in scoring, averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting .432 percent from behind the arc.
In his last four games, Wyatt is averaging more than 23 points per game and has hit 13 three pointers. Wyatt has also emerged as the Owls’ best player in the clutch, hitting big shot after big shot in games against Buffalo, Delaware and Duke.
With his scoring surge and clutch shooting performances, Wyatt has established himself as a dark horse candidate for A-10 Player of the Year.
The Owls are hopeful Eric will return by the end of January so that they can get back to running the style of offense that has made them successful under Dunphy.
But as Eric’s absence continues, the Owls have proven that they can find a way to win in the face of adversity.
Joey Cranney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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