Don’t Sleep on These Owls

by Tzvi Twersky

Rise fast, fall faster.

That’s how the Temple Owls must be feeling right about now.

A few marked up calendar pages ago, in late October or so, Atlantic 10 coaches and media members picked Temple University to finish fifth in the 14-team conference. At the time of the tally, the prediction appeared grounded in legitimate reasoning: Dionte Christmas—the A10’s leading scorer three years running—graduated this past spring, along with two other Temple starters, Sergio Olmos and Semaj Inge.

With those three key contributors gone, the 2009-10 season seemed destined to be one of small gains and large setbacks in North Philly. And with a roster consisting mainly of underclassmen—only two players, Ryan Brooks and Luis Guzman, are seniors—that was going to be okay. As long as the team competed in games and grew in practice, cherry and white faithful would be cool.

That’s what coaches around the often overlooked A10 thought. That’s what most of the media thought. That’s what the majority of the fans thought. More than two months later, however, it’s obvious that’s not what the team thought.

“No one person can replace Dionte Christmas,” said 6-9 junior forward Lavoy Allen after handily defeating Delaware 76-56 in the Owls’ season opener. “So we all have to contribute.”

And contribute they all did.

Gritty as their home city and led by Ryan Brooks’ 23 points and Allen’s—a preseason first team All-Atlantic 10 Conference selection—15 boards, seven Owls scored in double-figures, setting the “win as a team” tone for the season.

Three days later on ESPN, Temple scared then #19 Georgetown University, ultimately falling 46-45 in a battle reminiscent of an old man game at the local Y. The loss was a win of sorts, though, as Temple declared to a national audience that they could hang with the some of the best of the Big East—and Lavoy Allen (featured in SLAM 133) showed that he could hang with the elite bigs, outplaying Greg Monroe en route to bucketing 12 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.

After that game, the Owls proceeded to win six of their next seven, largely on the back of their physical, near dirty D. On offense, Ryan Brooks and sophomore guard Juan Fernandez carried the brunt of the scoring load, while Allen, Luis Guzman, Craig Williams and Rahlir Jefferson played their roles—do-it all, lock-down defender, spot-up shooter and slasher, respectively—exceedingly well. The loss of Christmas’ scoring was supposed to leave this team out of March play. But by this point, it was clear: whereas last year the Owls were a one-man show this go-round they were a team… in every sense of the word.

Still, a 7-2 record didn’t impress coaches and media enough to have TU in the Top 25.

75-65 and 71-65 did, though. The scores of their next two games, stunning Ws over the previously undefeated Villanova Wildcats and Seton Hall Pirates, did that, landing the Owls at #21 in the AP’s Top 25.

A mere two months after being thought nothing of (remember, they were predicted to finish fifth in their conference!), coach Fran Dunphy’s Owls had risen to a perch thought unobtainable for the young squad lacking highly recruited players.

Coaches were surprised. The media was surprised. The team, not so much so.

And they weren’t done yet.

On Monday, December 28th, now #18 Temple defeated Bowling Green 63-39.

On Wednesday, December 30th, Temple handled Northern Illinois 70-60.

On Thursday, they rested uncomfortably in an Illinois airport, plane delayed for hours.

On Friday, the first day of 2010, last season’s star, Christmas, signed with a professional team in Israel.

On Saturday morning everything peaked. Partially due to the 33 he dropped on Nova, the Owls’ Juan Fernandez was featured in the New York Times, and the team was discussed in a flattering fashion all day on TV and the web.

The ascent was complete. In addition to Fernandez’s stellar play, Ryan Brooks was playing well, Lavoy was locking up the lane and snatching boards at will and a different Owl was stepping up every night. But Temple’s players weren’t given a real chance to enjoy the view from the summit. Kansas was in town that Saturday night, and the #1 ranked team didn’t come to Philly just for a cheese steak.

With a chance to prove the legitimacy of their record and to showcase their talents on TV again, the Owls were choked out by the Jayhawks like a boxer who stumbled into an MMA octagon, 84-52. The defense was MIA. The offense was ineffective. Their 15 minutes were deemed up by Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins and company. All of this at TU’s home on North Broad, the Liacouras Center.

The aftermath of that national debacle is now on the Owls. And contrary to turncoats’ belief—those who hopped off the same wagon that they had just hopped on—the Owls’ season isn’t over. In fact, with A10 Conference play set to begin tonight at home against cross-town rival St Joseph’s, the Owls season is now really underway.

Starting the climb all over again at the same place where they fell off the cliff a few days ago, Allen, Micheal Eric, Scootie Randall, T.J DiLeo and the rest of the cherry and white clad squad won’t be shocked if they pick it back up where they left off before the Kansas game. They won’t be shocked if they finish better than fifth in the Atlantic 10. They won’t be shocked if they’re playing in March.

Many coaches may be surprised if they’re around then. Many of the talking heads on TV may be surprised, too. Will you be?