McKie talks COVID-19, NJIT as Owls prepare for opener

Nearly four weeks have passed since Temple Men’s Basketball head coach Aaron McKie last met with the media. The topic, however, remains the same. COVID-19 protocols and the preparation for the team’s upcoming season opener.

Originally slated for the week of Thanksgiving with either a game against NJIT or their trip to Mohegan Sun, a positive COVID-19 test sent the Owls into quarantine for two weeks. According to guidelines, they were to re-emerge on December 10th, two days prior to their game against St. Joe’s. A positive test sent the Hawks into quarantine and, thus, the vicious cycle of starts and stops in the college basketball world has brought Temple to its latest start in program history. 

Opening tip-off will finally come Saturday at 4:30pm against NJIT at the Liacouras Center. The Highlanders also have not begun their season as they are coming out of quarantine following a positive test in their program on November 25th. 

McKie met with the media on Wednesday to talk about the upcoming season opener and where the Owls are in terms of preparation for the season. Here were some of the key takeaways from the session.

COVID-19 Protocols & Impact

The pandemic’s impact is the overarching headline in nearly every facet of life at this point and the Owls’ season is no exception. City restrictions kept the team away from one another all summer and then the tight protocols this fall were limiting to how much the team could do all together.

McKie recalled numerous times over the summer where he would be on Zoom calls with the other programs of the American Athletic Conference and be in awe of how coaches had their players in the gym with them. In an offseason with a lot of roster turnover, the team has hardly been together as one cohesive group.

“If you combine it, we’ve only been practicing for two weeks leading up to this game,” McKie said. “It’s been difficult. It’s been mentally challenging, not just for me, but for the players.”

Without practice, it begs the question of how prepared this team can truly be for Saturday’s game. The Owls return just 18 minutes worth of experience from last year’s squad in the backcourt and just three players (J.P. Moorman, Dre Perry and Jake Forrester) who saw more than fifteen minutes of action per game.

McKie leaned back on some cliches when talking about the expectations for his freshman class, seeking for them to play hard and compete as they adjust to life in college basketball. As for what the team will look to do, McKie said “less is more” and is looking for the team to be “unselfish” with the basketball in the early going of the season. 

As for their surroundings, the team is going to have to adjust to life without fans in the Liacouras Center this season. 

“It’s how you grew up playing the game of basketball on the playground,” McKie said. “You generate your own energy.”

Player Availability

Point guard Tai Strickland will be a game-time decision for the Owls as he continues to get back into fold following shoulder surgery in late August. McKie indicated that there is no rush to get him back on the floor as he wants to maintain his long term health. The team will already be without freshman point guard Jahlil White after he tore his left meniscus and underwent surgery in earlier November.

Additionally, the team will be without Dartmouth grad transfer Brendan Barry, who has not yet practiced with the team as they await more information on his status. If Strickland joins Barry and White on the bench, the backcourt rotation will likely be left to sophomore Khalif Battle, redshirt freshman Damian Dunn and the freshmen duo of Quincy Ademokoya and Jeremiah Williams. 

The expectation remains that much of the leadership on the floor will fall onto the shoulders of newly minted senior captains J.P. Moorman and De’Vondre Perry. 

“I need those guys to do all the little things for me,” McKie said. “Rebound the ball and communicate with all the guys out on the floor. …We’re going to need the nuts and bolts type of guys like J.P. and Dre.”

NJIT Preview

After an impressive season in 2018-19, the Highlanders took a step backwards last season, finishing 9-21 and tumbling to eighth in the nine ASUN conference. This year, they return three of last year’s starting five and have moved on to the America East Conference. 

Senior Zach Cooks is the centerpiece for this program, known for his tremendous ball handling and ability to create on the offensive side of the floor. The 5-10 point guard averaged 19.7 points per game a season ago, the second highest total in program history. 

Starting forwards San Antonio Brinson (6-8, 200) and Souleymane Diakite (6-9, 210) also return. Brinson is more known for his ability to score the ball, averaging 11 points per game a season ago and shooting an impressive 38% from beyond the arc. Diakite is a bruiser, he gets very physical around the basket, averaging 8.8 rebounds per game as well as 1.9 blocks. 

The rest of the roster is raw. With two junior college recruits, a transfer, two redshirt freshmen and two true freshmen all entering the fold, there is a lot to figure out for the Highlanders.

“We don’t know what NJIT is going to throw at us,” McKie said. “We don’t have a lot of information on those guys. They’re a lot like us where they have a lot of new faces, but they also got some experienced guys.”

Quick Hits & Game Info

Series History: Temple 1-0 (Won 68-63 in December 2016)

High School Story: Zach Cooks spent his first two years of high school playing at Norcross (GA), where Temple freshman Quincy Ademokoya starred at. Their timelines did not overlap.

Philly Ties: NJIT’s Antwuan Butler (Cardinal O’Hara) and Da’mir Faison are both from Philadelphia. Additionally, Xavier Mayo graduated from The Hill School in Pottstown, PA, just forty minutes from Temple’s campus. 

Tip-off: Saturday December 19th at 4:30pm on ESPN+, 1210 WPHT and WHIP Radio.

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