Khalif Wyatt is trying to bring an honor back to the men’s basketball team that Temple hasn’t had in 13 years: the Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year award.
Averaging a conference-best 19.6 points per game with two regular season games remaining, the senior guard is creeping closer to capturing the scoring title and, potentially, Player of the Year honors. It is a possibility, as much as he doesn’t want to think about it.
“[The Player of the Year award] will just come with me playing the way I have been and trying to win as many games as possible,” Wyatt said. “If we win and I play well, anything can happen. But it’s just about trying to win and doing what my teammates need me to do.”
Temple, despite being the A-10’s all-time leader in schools who have had a player win the Player of the Year honor, has not had a representative since Pepe Sánchez in 2000. In Temple’s final year in the conference, Wyatt is looking to become the school’s 10th, and last, A-10 Player of the Year.
“[Winning the honor] would mean a lot,” Wyatt said. “The Atlantic 10 is a great conference with great players and this is probably the best the conference has been since I have been here. To be the A-10 Player of the Year would mean a lot to me and my teammates and my coaches.”
His résumé includes a 19.6 points per game mark, 1.8 points higher than the second-leading scorer, Rhode Island guard Xavier Munford. Despite torching the Owls for 30 points last Saturday, Munford has two games left to pass Wyatt. If Wyatt’s average were to remain consistent as the season ends, Munford would need to average 44.2 points in each of his last two contests to tie Wyatt.[blockquote who=”Fran Dunphy” what=”coach”]Whenever we need a basket, that’s who we turn to because he can not only score, he can create opportunities.[/blockquote]
Wyatt has a good chance of becoming the first Temple player to lead the conference in scoring since Dionte Christmas in 2009.
“It’s been very fun,” Wyatt said about the scoring run. “My teammates have been depending on me and I have been coming up for them. There’s no added pressure, I just try to take what the defense gives me and do whatever it takes to win.”
The Player of the Year award, however, is not always given to the conference’s highest scorer. Christmas failed to win the honor despite leading the conference in scoring for three straight seasons. When Andrew Nicholson of St. Bonaventure led the A-10 in scoring and collected the honor last season, it was the first time the scoring title and Player of the Year award were aligned since 2005.
Wyatt, however, can do more than score. Averaging 4.1 assists per game, Wyatt ranks seventh in the conference. Facilitating, as well as his ability to take over a game, leads to his success, coach Fran Dunphy said.
“He wants the ball in his hands at the most critical times,” Dunphy said. “Whenever we need a basket, that’s who we turn to because he can not only score, he can create opportunities as well.”
“He is just an extraordinary offensive basketball player,” Dunphy added. “He can do things that others cannot at a pace that is unbelievable. It looks like he is going in slow motion. He has a great feel for the game and he is as intelligent of a player as I have ever coached.”
Dunphy has coached his share of scoring champions at Temple. Aside from Christmas’ three straight years leading the conference, Ramone Moore led the conference in scoring for much of last year. A late lapse in scoring contributed to dropping to third on the season-ending list.
Moore’s scoring average dipped in each of his last seven games to close last season out, dropping from 18.8 to 17.3. Wyatt has seen the inverse trend. Since Jan. 19, Wyatt has scored 30 or more three times, and his average has risen from 16.1 to 19.6. As the average soars, so does Wyatt’s confidence.
“[Wyatt] is an extremely confident player,” redshirt-senior forward Scootie Randall said. “He is going to come out and bring whatever it takes to help us win and that’s his whole mindset.”
The numbers don’t always tell the full story, however. While Temple is in the midst of a tournament push, Wyatt has been at his best, and comes up big in key moments. Hitting the game-winning shot against Dayton on Feb. 9 preserved a victory that would have looked very poor on the Owls’ March résumé.
Last Thursday, against Detroit, Wyatt scored zero first half points. He followed that up with a 20-point second half, including 12 points in the final two minutes. Among these were a banked-in three pointer and another deep ball made off-balanced with a defender in his face. Wyatt’s performance elevated the team to an 83-78 victory.
“You live with Khalif doing some of those things because of his ability to live in the moment and make great plays,” Dunphy said.
“I let the game come to me,” Wyatt said. “I don’t take that many shots, I don’t force that many shots. Points and averages don’t really come into my mind.”
Wyatt has been crucial to Temple’s late-season success, but a scoring title and the possibility of winning the Player of the Year award are not a concern that Dunphy, or the rest of the Owls are worried about.
“[Wyatt] has won a lot of awards in his life,” Randall said. “He is going to bounce back from it either way and won’t let it interrupt anything that we have going on.”
“I hope he downplays [the award], because the reality is that it’s not that important because it is an individual award,” Dunphy said. “He will look back on it later and say it’s nice, but it is not a discussion he and I will have. I don’t ever talk about individual things.”
With teams keying in on Wyatt, scoring hasn’t been as easy. Wyatt said one of the biggest challenges this season compared to last was the way he is being defended.
“It’s harder to score, teams try to not let me catch the ball and frustrate me,” Wyatt said. “It comes with the territory I guess. It’s about going out there and staying focused for 40 minutes and just playing your game, don’t let anybody decide how you play.”
Whether or not Wyatt lets other team’s pressure affect his play or mentality is unknown. Dunphy acknowledged that Wyatt has matured this season, but that pressure to perform every night could be a factor.
“I would hope [there is no pressure], but there probably is,” Dunphy said. “The pressure does get to you on occasion, but as Billie Jean King once said, ‘Pressure is a privilege.’ He is a privileged guy to have everyone looking to him to score. The other part of that is that other teams don’t want him to score.”
Dunphy only quoted half of King’s line. The full quote reads: “Pressure is a privilege, and champions adjust.”
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ibrahimjacobs.