By Matt Norlander
The talent in the Atlantic 10, the number of quality, tournament-worthy teams, hasn’t been much of a talking topic so far this year. It normally isn’t for that league until mid-January comes around. But I was thinking: How good is Temple? Like Syracuse with the Big East or Kansas with the Big 12, we often equate the A10’s stature each year by how strong Temple is. That’s not a fair barometer, but it is a comfortable one.
Plus, in years when the Owls are good, the league usually follows suit — at least at the top, when there are two or three clubs with the capability to steal some games in March. Temple makes the league want to be better when it is better. Xavier's been the better program for the past decade, but Temple still rules the roost. It's still older brother.
And maybe that’s why people haven’t talked that much about the league this year. Xavier's awesome but isn't being discussed as the Final Four contender is clearly is. Saint Louis still has its quiet critics. Richmond's down. Was that Dayton win over Alabama Wednesday night a fluke? A quiet Temple makes for a quiet Atlantic 10. They do seem to go hand in hand, don't you agree?
So, is this Temple team better than last year’s? Cop-out: I’m not sure. And neither are you. And, if you forced him to tell the truth, Owls coach Fran Dunphy would own up to not knowing yet either. Last year’s team went 26-8 and was a 7 seed, losing to San Diego State in its third-round (but really second-round) game. Unfortunately, the Owls no longer have Lavoy Allen, a player Dunphy says is one of the best defensive forces he’s ever coached. The Owls are 5-2, just pasted Toledo on the road Wednesday night, and now the next two games are against Villanova and Texas. They’re fairly critical. Outside of going 14-2 in the conference (hey, it did that last year!), if Temple drops both of these games, an at-large actually seems unlikely down the road. (Though they do get Duke at home in January, and what an opportunity that is.)
“We’re a little banged up right now,” Dunphy said, referring to losing Michael Eric for about six weeks due to a patella injury in his right knee. Eric is averaging 10.5 points and 11.3 rebounds. He’s 6-11. But without him, the team’s still “not sure how to play with him,” Dunphy said.
It lost Bowling Green in its first game following Eric’s injury. But the team’s rebounded since, even if it’s defensively not what it was last year. Losing Allen will do that to you. The Owls, who haven’t been ranked in either poll so far this year, are cruising along the radar, except in the Non-BCS Power Pyramid, where the faith is still being kept. What we've seen from Temple so far is a good team that's not yet hatched. The overtime win over Wichita State will be one that ages well.
They are enigmatic, though.
“We resemble that remark sometimes,” Dunphy said. “More than we should be. Part of that is we don’t have Mike.”
The team’s also had to rely heavily on Ramone Moore, who could be the conference’s second-best player — and the guy who plays more minutes than anyone in the nation this season. Moore is currently playing 95.2 percent of his team’s minutes, seventh-most in the nation. He's scoring 16.4 points per game and shooting almost 40 percent from 3. Critical play, for sure.
“I would rather that he not play as many minutes as he had, but we’ve had so many close games, we haven’t had a chance to sit him out,” Dunphy said.
Moore, Juan Fernandez and Khalif Wyatt are a triumvirate who mean more on offense than defense for Dunphy. The team is scoring better than 1.1 points per possession; it hasn't finished above that clip since 2007-08. It's been the necessary bonus for the Owls this year, since it's dipped in defensive efficiency.
“I think it’s always the same for us,” Dunphy said. “The defensive end takes precedent. Any time we can keep anyone below 40 percent shooting, that’s big for us. We also want no empty possessions. Empty possessions can lead to scoring on the other end.”
Moore and Fernandez should continue to be all league-level players. Once Eric comes back healthy in January, Temple should again be among the top six or seven non-BCS teams in the country. But they won't have him for 'Nova or Texas and probably not the Jan. 4 Duke game. If all of those are losses, it diminishes Temple's reputation, and in turn the A10's as well.Photo: US PRESSWIRE