Conference play gets underway as Owls face Houston on Tuesday night

In college, there’s always one professor that uses syllabus week as an opportunity to assign work and start teaching, totally ruining the art of letting students ease into a new semester. In college basketball, the beginning of the season is normally similar to the majority of professors who give a grace period for students to get adjusted. Even if the schedule is loaded with talented squads, teams are usually given a few games to figure things out prior to conference play.

In 2020, that’s not going to be the case for the Temple Owls. After a 14-day stint in COVID-19 quarantine, the Owls played the only non conference game currently on their schedule on Saturday, beating NJIT 72-60 in a nearly empty Liacouras Center. Now, it’s time for Temple to begin the American Athletic Conference portion of the season.

The first test is a trip to face Houston which, to return to the syllabus week analogy, might as well be assigning a midterm on the second week of class. The Cougars are 5-0 and ranked sixth in the country in the latest AP Poll. They were also tabbed as the favorites to win the AAC, selected by nine of eleven coaches as the top team in the league.

Here’s what to look for in Tuesday’s game.

COVID-19 Protocol Impact on Houston

Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson made headlines last week by proclaiming every single one of the fifteen players on his roster has contracted COVID-19 at some point. The team was just released from a quarantine a week ago and beat Alcorn State on Sunday 88-55 with only nine players.

Two key contributors did not participate in the game on Sunday, preseason AAC player of the year Caleb Mills and the Cougars’ second leading scorer Marcus Sasser. Mills impressed a season ago against Temple, scoring a team-high 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Both of the sophomore guards’ status is unknown for the matchup with Temple.

“We’ll test tomorrow, which is Monday and play Tuesday. You ask me how do I feel about it. Well, ask me when the results get back in because that’s really the only thing you can judge your thoughts on or how you feel is the results of the test,” Sampson said after the win over Alcorn State. “We don’t know whether we are going to have some of our guys, most of them or just a few of them.”

It will certainly be interesting to see how Temple will attack the Cougars if they are indeed shorthanded. The Owls played ten players on Saturday, but did have an emphasis on playing in the halfcourt. One has to imagine that the Owls might be more willing to attack if they do in fact have numbers on Tuesday night.

Owls’ Availability & Lineups

Saturday afternoon brought along a couple of surprises for the Owls, with Tai Strickland and Brendan Barry both suiting up and playing and guard Khalif Battle being sidelined with a hamstring injury. Head coach Aaron McKie said he was “hoping” Battle would be back in action for Houston, but did not have any definitive answers for the Butler transfer. In addition to Battle, forward Sage Tolbert and guard Jahlil White did not suit up for the NJIT game. The former may redshirt this season while the latter is still recovering from a tear in his left meniscus. 

With no media availability given the short time between the two games, there’s not much more to go on. The starting five (Damian Dunn, Jeremiah Williams, Dre Perry, JP Moorman and Jake Forrester) looked promising in their time together on the floor, posting a +12 in over eight minutes of action. Granted, the difference was all accounted for in a hot start and the lineup didn’t see much action in the second half due to foul trouble for Forrester. 

The only viable change in the lineup could be an attempt to go small to match up with whatever Houston may be throwing at them tonight as the Cougars do not have a player on the roster taller than 6’8. A season ago, Forrester played in only 17 minutes against the Cougars as McKie favored a smaller lineup in much of the game.

That smaller lineup might line up to be Dunn, Williams, Barry, Perry and Moorman, the quintet that played the final five minutes of Saturday’s game for the Owls. The group was +5 as they tried to keep NJIT at bay. JP Moorman especially thrived in the setup, scoring all 10 of his points with that lineup. If they do choose to go small and Battle doesn’t play, there may be a chance for an extended look at freshman guard Quincy Ademokoya, who was yanked quickly in Saturday’s game due to a couple bad defensive possessions. 

Houston Overview

It’s difficult to assess what the Owls are up against without truly knowing who the Owls will be up against. The calling card of this Houston program is the incredible backcourts that Sampson has been developing over the years. That, of course, will be a tremendous test for a young and very inexperienced Temple backcourt.

The aforementioned Mills averaged 13.2 points per game to lead the Cougars in scoring last season, becoming only the second freshman in program history to do that. He’s not a distributor or a defensive menace, he just finds the bottom of the basket with ease. At his best, he’s a pretty good long range shooter with the ability to slash to the paint. If he plays, he’ll be yet another challenge for Jeremiah Williams to cover. 

Elsewhere, Sasser and junior guard Quentin Grimes have been prolific scorers when they’ve played this season. Sasser is averaging 17.3 points per game and shooting an uncanny 50% from the three point arc. Grimes has played in all five games, averaging 19.3 points per game and has done a little bit of everything from rebounding to distributing the ball. The Owls did do a tremendous job of locking him down a season ago, limiting him to just four points in 27 minutes played. 

The Owls’ 78-74 defeat at the hands of the Cougars was a well contested effort in early January. Temple was physically dominated, however, getting outrebounded 54-32 including the Cougars’ absurd 23 offensive rebounds. Fortunately for the Owls, forwards Chris Harris Jr. and Nate Hinton (who combined for 25 rebounds) have both moved on from the Houston program.

Quick Hits & Game Info

All-Time: Houston 8-3 (Owls last win was January 2019, 73-69 at the Liacouras Center)

Fans in the stands: There will be fans in attendance for Tuesday’s game. Houston is allowing 25% capacity into the Fertitta Center, which amounts to roughly 1500-1700 fans in attendance if the place is sold out.

Tip-off: Tuesday, December 22nd at 8:00pm on ESPN+ and 1210 WPHT.

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