Men’s Basketball Press Availability: COVID-19, Rotation update and UCF preview

Better late than never.

Following a postponement of one day, Temple Men’s Basketball (1-3, 0-3 in AAC) is slated to take on UCF (3-3, 1-2) at the Liacouras Center on Thursday, Jan. 14. The Knights are emerging from a quarantine that put the program on pause Jan. 2. 

Head coach Aaron McKie and senior forward J.P. Moorman II met with the media on Wednesday to discuss the matchup, the Owls’ season so far and where things go from here as Temple has three games in its next six days. Here were some of the takeaways from the presser. 

COVID-19 Impact

The tables have turned for the Owls as they will now be the ones facing a team just recently freed from a COVID-19 related pause. UCF has had two games postponed over the last two weeks due to positive tests and contact tracing, but returned to the court in between both of them to play USF, a game they lost 68-61.

The sentiment echoed across college basketball with the pauses is the lack of an ability to get into a rhythm and how teams aren’t anywhere near where they are supposed to be in January. Both McKie and Moorman have spoken to this at multiple sessions across the season and the impact is evident in some of the miscues on the court for Temple.

“It’s hard…especially when there was no school throughout winter break,” Moorman said of the pauses. “It’s especially frustrating watching all my guys out there from back home and all over the country playing games and not being able to be out there and compete.”

Elsewhere around the league, COVID-19 is reeking some havoc. Wednesday night’s ECU and Cincinnati game was postponed due to positive test results in the Bearcats’ program on Tuesday. News also broke Wednesday morning that SMU will be on pause and postponing two games, Thursday’s matchup against Memphis and Sunday’s matchup against Wichita State.

The latter is more important to the Temple program than the former as the Owls just returned from a trip to SMU in which the Mustangs beat Owls 79-68. Obviously, there is no knowledge of who tested positive but being on the same court as a team two days prior to the program going on pause is cause for concern. As for the impact Cincinnati and ECU’s postponement will have on Temple, the Pirates will have more time to prepare for their matchup with the Owls on Saturday and the Bearcats are scheduled to visit Temple next Wednesday. 

Owls’ Lineup and Availability

The biggest on-court story of the Owls’ season has been grad transfer guard Brendan Barry and his torrid stretch shooting the basketball to begin the season. The Dartmouth transfer is averaging 11.3 points per game while shooting 14-25 (56%) from beyond the arc. 

His success combined with some struggles from the team’s bigs has led to the question of whether or not Barry will crack the starting lineup soon as well as whether the team will play more small ball going forward. He’s had a solid run of success playing alongside the starting lineup sans junior forward Jake Forrester, opening up the floor. Regardless of whether or not there is an actual change in the starters, Barry clearly has earned a lionshare of minutes in the rotation, playing over thirty minutes of game action in each of the team’s conference games. 

“Sometimes when we move JP to that five position it gives us better spacing out on the floor. It makes us small, but if you’re tough and physical, you can get in there and compete,” McKie said of the small ball lineup. “We’ll have some disadvantages but, in some cases, we’ll have our advantages and score the ball.”

Along with the benefits to Barry’s play, there is the clear difference in the team’s approach from a year ago offensively to right now. There have been stretches in which the offense is playing cohesively and really working the ball around. Obviously, there remains the stretches of frustrating early possession contested jumpers and hero ball.

Moorman has been amongst the bright spots in terms of distributing the ball. While he averaged 1.7 assists per game over the last two seasons, he’s up to 2.5 per game and has the ball in his hands much more often than in previous years. 

“We’re not where we want to be offensively yet, but that’ll come with time, ” Moorman said. “Once we start to start to find a rhythm, I think we’ll be dangerous offensively,”

Questions also remain around two other transfers in the backcourt, redshirt sophomore Tai Strickland and sophomore Khalif Battle. For Strickland, it’s about some early season struggles and a workload that seemingly disappeared in the team’s most recent game in which he only played seven minutes. The 6-2 point guard has struggled to score, shooting just 2-14 (14.3%) from the field and has not facilitated the offense nearly enough while on the floor. 

As for Battle, he has yet to see the floor due to a pulled hamstring that he suffered leading up to the season opener against NJIT. McKie said that he had shut the sophomore guard down because the hamstring continued to bother him as they attempted to get him up to game speed in practice. When available, he’s likely to slide into a big role in the rotation.

“(He) gives us a guy that’s another scoring threat out on the floor to take some pressure off of our other guys,” McKie said of Battle. “We certainly have to get better moving the ball and creating better shots for our guys and I think Khalif can help in that.”

Among other things, McKie referred to Battle as a “well oiled machine” in terms of his athleticism and his face lit up when talking about Battle’s potential, clearly showing excitement for when they will be able to trot him out on the floor.

UCF Expectations

The Knights have had a mixed bag of results so far this season. The highs include the first ever win over then 15th-ranked Florida State in program history as well as a win over Auburn. The lows include a drubbing by Michigan and a loss against rival USF. 

It was a down year for head coach Johnny Dawkins and his program a year ago, finishing 16-14 overall and 7-11 in the AAC after they took Duke to the final seconds in the second round of the 2018-19 NCAA tournament. One constant from that team is a strong backcourt duo that can really shoot the ball from beyond the arc.

Senior guard Brandon Mahan has been the centerpiece to this team’s success this season. The 6-5 guard transferred in from Texas A&M prior to last season and has really come into his own to start this season. He’s fourth in the AAC at 17.5 points per game and third in the conference in both field goal percentage (57.6%) and three point percentage (47.4%). His best game was a 32 point outburst against Florida State in which he went 10-13 from the field and 10-10 from the free throw line.

Elsewhere in the backcourt, Darin Green Jr. is shooting over 40% from beyond the arc and scoring 12.8 points per game. For a team like Temple that has struggled to slow shooters from beyond the arc at times, especially in the second half of games, this will be a test.

“Personally, I like to make them uncomfortable and especially guys who just want to shoot, make them have to do things differently,” McKie said. “We want to mix it up a little bit and make the unlikely (to beat you from three) guys beat us out there.”

One player that hasn’t lit it up from beyond the arc but figures to cause the Owls trouble if he’s available is Isaiah Adams. The freshman forward is the first ever Mr. Basketball from Florida to go to UCF and is going to be a problem in the coming years in the AAC. He did not play in the team’s loss to USF due to illness (unaware if it is COVID-19 related), but started the three games before that including a 22 point outburst in th upset win over Florida State. 

Adams is a menace defensively, averaging two steals per game, and can run up the scoring if need be, but is more than capable of playing a facilitator role for the team. Given his 6-6, 210 stature, Dre Perry appears to be the logical defensive matchup for him. 

Quick Hits

All Time Record: 8-6 (Almost not worth it to discuss the Owls’ win over the Knights last season because each team hardly is returning any players from their rotation in that game)

Tip-off: Thursday, January 14th at 12:00pm on ESPN+ and WHIP Radio. Adam Crognale and Zach Demusz will have the call of the game, pregame with Tanner Gilmartin and Max Gretzula starts at 11:30am.

Fun fact: This is the first time that UCF is traveling to the Liacouras Center since Fran Dunphy’s final home game with the Owls. You might remember that as the game where Quinton Rose dunked on Tacko Fall and secured the Owls’ tournament hopes for 2018-19.

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