WRITTEN BY TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
For the eighth time in the last nine years, Temple Men’s Basketball earned at least 20 season victories, headlining the 2016 American Athletic Conference Tournament as the regular season conference champion.
The Owls (20-10, 14-4), who were projected to finish sixth in the conference standings last November, defied several analysts’ expectations this winter, and received the No. 1 seed in the bracket last Sunday after a 64-56 win against Tulane.
But the regular season crown does not carry the same power come mid-March, as the conference tournament results will determine Temple’s postseason fate.
The Owls will face the No. 9 seeded South Florida Bulls in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon in Orlando, with a NCAA Tournament bid on the line for the second consecutive year.
“Seeing how we were left out last year, just by not winning one game here or here, every game matters,” said Owls’ guard Quenton Decosey, who was selected unanimously to the AAC’s First-Team. “We’re taking every game seriously.”
Temple finished the 2014-15 campaign with a record of 26-11, the team’s highest win total since 2009, but failed in receiving an invitation to the dance after losing to Southern Methodist in the conference tournament semifinals. Southern Methodist, who won the championship last season, is ineligible to defend the title, as academic sanctions handed by the NCAA enforced a ban on postseason play in 2016.
This March, the Owls’ scenario is one and the same, and the team understands that a single slip-up could be detrimental.
“Cause there’s so many games close together, you’ve got a short time to prepare for it,” said Owls’ forward Jaylen Bond. “So you got to play your best basketball every night cause you can lose to anybody and your season can be over.”
Temple began November with a record of 1-3, but after a shocking 77-70 road victory at Cincinnati in late December, the Owls gained momentum, winning 14 of their final 19 games.
“Each game is such a separate entity,” said Owls’ head coach Fran Dunphy, who was awarded AAC Coach of the Year honors for the second straight season. “We just got to play our best basketball, we got to play 40 really good minutes, hopefully three days in a row.”
While Temple finished 5-0 against Cincinnati, Southern Methodist, and Connecticut, one of the Owls’ worst losses came against East Carolina in early January, a 64-61 loss that sparked doubt in Temple’s legitimacy. Of the AAC’s 11 teams, six finished with a conference record over .500, proving that each team is resilient, and also vulnerable.
“All 10 teams could win this thing,” said Dunphy. “It’s a really good league, it’s a very competitive league.”
The Bulls, who finished the season 7-24, are led by freshman guard Jahmal McMurray, who averages 15.3 points per game, and senior forward Jaleel Cousins, who averages 7.9 rebounds. South Florida last beat the Owls in 2013, and have lost the last five matchups.
While the pressure is high, Temple remains confident, hopeful that the team’s name will be called on Selection Sunday.
“I think we’re in a groove right now,” said DeCosey. “Everybody’s playing well. Work’s not done yet.”
AAC TOURNAMENT QUARTERFINALS
#1 TEMPLE vs. #9 SOUTH FLORIDA, MARCH 11, 2016
AMWAY CENTER, ORLANDO, FL
TV: 12 P.M. ON ESPN2
RADIO: WHIP TEMPLE RADIO (COVERAGE BEGINS AT 11:30)