Temple set to face ECU in first round of AAC tournament

WRITTEN BY: TOM HANSLIN  @tomhanslin

PHILADELPHIABy the time conference tournament week arrives in college hoops, it’s rather easy for underachieving teams to forget about their regular season struggles and wipe their slates clean. In most cases, the remainder of the season is just one game long, headlined by the classic mantra of “survive and advance.”

The phrase is obvious. It’s monotonous. It’s tired. But it’s also quite true for Temple. 

An automatic bid to the Big Dance requires four consecutive wins in the American Athletic Conference tournament. The No. 8/No. 9 seed game pairs the Owls (16-15, 7-11) with the East Carolina Pirates (14-17, 6-12) on Thursday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford. 

“It’s our championship game,” Temple head coach Fran Dunphy told WHIP Radio on Monday. “We’re trying to win every game we play, and we’re trying to win every single possession we play. Every game takes on a new personality, and games can change on a play. That’s how the game’s decided sometimes. Hopefully we’re going to get our share of made field goals and then the opposition will miss some of theirs.”

Temple clinched the No. 8 seed on Sunday after defeating South Florida in Tampa, while ECU landed the No. 9 seed following its loss to Houston. The winner of Thursday’s game will face top-seeded Southern Methodist (27-4, 17-1) at noon on Friday in the quarterfinals, which may seem more like a curse than a blessing. 

To say the least, Temple has dealt with an array of emotions this season. While the final product may have been predictable, considering the absences of guards Trey Lowe and Josh Brown due to injuries and the necessity to rely heavily on inexperienced freshmen, the Owls’ ranking ultimately came down to losing efforts in tight-knit games. 

With a sample size of 31 games, Temple’s identity is two-faced. Even though the Owls finished their campaign with 15 total losses (seven of which were decided by single digits), a magic number continued to appear. Temple went 15-1 in games in which they scored at least 70 points, which begs the question, is this team as mediocre as its record shows?

“I feel like we can win every game that we play,” forward Obi Enechionyia said. “Our record might not show it, but we’re a lot better than how we’ve played. I’m just trying to forget what happened in the past and focus on what’s next. Again, if we just closed out a few of those games, we’d be in a different situation right now.”

No player has been quite as inconsistent as Enechionyia this season. In late November, the junior garnered national recognition for his offensive production, but since Nov. 30, he hasn’t scored over 20 points in a game. 

While it took several weeks for Enechionyia to find his old rhythm, he doesn’t believe he ever lost his confidence.

“It’s tough when most of your shots are jumpshots,” he said. “Sometimes your shot’s going to be off, but I’m feeling better. I’m going into this tournament no different than last year. Sometimes I let how I play on one end affect the other end. I just have to forget about any types of struggles.”

As a big man who tends to settle outside the paint with an exceptional three-point jumper in his arsenal, Enechionyia hasn’t crashed the boards the way Dunphy and the coaching staff had hoped he would. Enechionyia has only two double-doubles on the year, and hasn’t brought home double-digit rebounds in consecutive games since late December.

That message has been sent to Enechionyia, and Dunphy sent it again on Monday.

“[Obi’s] under instructions to get as many rebounds as he can on both ends of the court, which is not the easiest thing in the world to do,” Dunphy said. “But when Obi hits shots, we’re a much different team.

“I’d like to think we’re a better team as well because now he draws this attention, opens up opportunities for others. Recently, I think he’s felt more comfortable getting shots up. He’s getting better, and that’s the most important thing.”

Temple split its two regular season meetings with ECU. Both games were decided by double-digit margins, as ECU manhandled the Owls, 78-64, in Greenville back on Feb. 15.

That night, Pirates’ guards Kentrell Barkley and Caleb White scored 19 and 17 points respectively, while center Andre Washington tallied 15. ECU also out-rebounded Temple, 44-35, and forced nine Owls’ turnovers. 

“Their defensive numbers are very good, we respect them greatly,” Dunphy said. “Their athleticism is very good. They’ve got a guy like Caleb White who can make shots, and when he’s on, they’re really tough to beat. The kid Washington is a really solid defensive player, protects the rim, does all of those things, and yet we allowed him to shoot six-of-eight from the field. We can’t allow that to happen.”

Despite the nail-biting finishes and mood swings, perhaps Temple’s hopes of seeing another day will be determined by that 70-point plateau. Or perhaps not. It seems to be up in the air to everyone. 

If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email him at thanslin@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.

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