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March 21, 2013

Five questions with OwlScoop.com's John Di Carlo




Temple faced a fork in the road and could have gone either way this season.

The Owls responded with a strong closing push to enter the NCAA Tournament with a 23-9 record and 11-6 in the Atlantic 10 regular season. Temple earned a No. 9 seed and will take on No. 8-seeded NC State at 1:40 p.m. Friday in Dayton, Ohio.

John Di Carlo of OwlScoop.com, which is part of the Rivals.com network, took some time recently to answer five questions on what the Wolfpack will face in the NCAA Tournament.

What has been the mental toughness of the Owls to finish with nine out of 11 wins, and how much did the win over VCU validate it?

The win over VCU validated Temple's late-season run, although the loss to UMass in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament led Fran Dunphy to say Sunday that he felt his team disappointed a lot of people, so it will be interesting to find out how the Owls respond Friday.

But things really started to turn around after Temple lost at home to a bad Duquesne team Feb. 14 at the Liacouras Center. This was a Duquesne team that had not won since December and had never beaten the Owls at the Liacouras Center. The players were visibly despondent after the game, and things honestly could have gone one way or another at that point.

That's when the team's seven-game win streak started, and the mental toughness part of things came from virtually everyone on the team. Scootie Randall, who had been mired in a slump, started hitting big shots again and found his confidence. Jake O'Brien, in addition to hitting from three-point range, began showing signs of improved rebounding and shot-blocking. Starting point guard Will Cummings started to drive to the basket with more confidence and authority. And forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, who has always been a mentally-tough player, has been playing some of his best basketball.

In the Feb. 21 win over La Salle that also went a long way in solidifying the Owls' NCAA Tournament resume, Hollis-Jefferson posted 23 points, 18 rebounds and five assists and played the best game of his four-year career.

They've been in a lot of close games, 13 contests within six points or less. Does Temple turn to senior star guard Khalif Wyatt to make big plays down the stretch?

Absolutely.

If Temple ever has the last possession of the first half or the last possession of the game, you can almost take it to the bank that Dunphy will give Wyatt the freedom to get the ball at the top of the key, let the clock wind down and break down his defender for a shot.

Wyatt has been the best clutch player for Temple since perhaps Lynn Greer or Quincy Wadley, who were part of the 2001 Elite Eight team. He's never been the quickest or fastest player, but Wyatt has an uncanny way of getting to the basket by implementing an old man's game of misdirection, play fakes and using his body to draw contact.

Wyatt has had some of his best performances in Temple's biggest games this season. He had what was then a career-high 33 points in the Owls' win over then-No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden back on Dec. 22, scored 26 at Kansas, had 24 in a win over Saint Louis and got 30 in the win over VCU.

The seniors have been together for years, but how much of an impact has pick-and-
pop outside shooter Jake O'Brien been after transferring in as a graduate from Boston University?


Wyatt was the Atlantic 10 player of the year and deservedly so, but without O'Brien, Temple doesn't make the NCAA Tournament this season.

When O'Brien decided he wanted to transfer from Boston University, he said he wanted to play for a program that gave him the best chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. When BU went to the tournament two seasons ago, O'Brien was out with an injury. O'Brien chose Temple over Boston College, Providence and Virginia for that reason and because of the relationship he had forged with former BU assistant and current Temple assistant Dwayne Killings.

O'Brien has been that 'stretch four' that the Owls haven't had in a long time. At 6-foot-9, 220 pounds, he can play inside a little bit when necessary (he had three blocks in the VCU win), but he's at his best when he's hanging around beyond the three-point arc, where he's shooting at a 42.9 percent clip. With Wyatt shooting just 1 of 8 in the VCU game and getting most of his points on drives and from the free-throw line, O'Brien saved Temple with 6 of 9 shooting, including 5 of 8 from three.

Fran Dunphy is as Philly as it gets and all he's done is win with class over the years. How would you describe the impact he's made since taking over at Temple?

When Dunphy took over at Temple, he had enormous shoes to fill in replacing John Chaney, a Hall of Fame coach who had taken the Owls to five Elite Eights. But when Dunphy arrived after 17 years at Penn, the Owls hadn't been to an NCAA Tournament in five years.

Most people would have been patient enough to give Dunphy two or maybe even three years to revamp the program and get it back to the Big Dance. But after just one transitional season in 2007, Dunphy led Temple to the 2008 Atlantic 10 Tournament championship and the automatic NCAA bid that came with it, and the Owls haven't been left out of the party on Selection Sunday ever since.

Save for 2011, when Temple beat Penn State and came up a few plays short of knocking off No. 2-seed San Diego State and advancing to the Sweet 16, the Owls haven't made any noise in March and are just 1-5 in the NCAA Tournament under Dunphy.

Xs and Os-wise, Dunphy is one of the best coaches in the country, and you won't hear any of his peers say a bad word about him. He runs a clean program, doesn't engage in negative recruiting, and he wins with class. Temple beat then-No. 3 Syracuse back in December and has managed to knock off a top-10 opponent during the regular season in each of the previous four years.

Now he needs to win in March. He knows it and his players know it, and they're focused on rectifying that Friday.

Will matching up with NC State's Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie be the toughest test on the Temple defense? Would O'Brien go against Howell and a combo of Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee against Leslie?

Yes, without question.

Because O'Brien comes off the bench, the most likely scenario will have Lee and Hollis-Jefferson initially matching up with Leslie and Howell, respectively. Lee is 6-foot-9 and Hollis-Jefferson is 6-6 but has grown accustomed to guarding power forwards two, three or even four inches taller all season. When O'Brien comes in, he'll probably draw Leslie as his defensive assignment because he usually comes in for Lee, who has been dealing with a head injury since last Friday, by the way. Lee and O'Brien are sometimes on the floor together depending upon the circumstances, but it doesn't always play out that way.

Temple also does a lot of switching on defense, and Dunphy has been content to stick with that, even if it means a scenario that finds a 6-4 guard like Wyatt switching and all of a sudden guarding a 6-9 player like Leslie. Sometimes it's a mismatch that actually works in the Owls' favor and creates steals by way of quick hands. Other times, it doesn't work.

And unless Dunphy has some tricks up his sleeve, don't expect him to employ a lot of zone Friday to counteract the size disadvantage up front. It's something Temple rarely does and it's not likely to change this week.


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