Fran Dunphy's Temple Owls head into the 2010 season with a chip on their shoulder. A first-round loss to Cornell. Not a whole bag of chips, just one solitary Herr's chip resting on their exposed shoulders. Given a 5-seed in last year's tournament, an underseeding according to everyone, the Owls faced another underseeded team, the number 12 Big Red out of Ithaca, N.Y. The veteran play of Ryan Wittman, Louis Dale, and Jeff Foote proved too much for the Owls to handle and Dunphy's boys took an early shower to end the 2009-10 season.
Eight months later, the Owls return Lavoy Allen and Juan Fernandez as their main contributors, but have lost graduates Ryan Brooks and Luis Guzman and are the AP's 21st-ranked team in the early going. Junior guard Ramone Moore has taken over the other guard spot and Scootie Randall and Rahlir Jefferson will be splitting time at the three. Nigerian center Michael Eric rounds out the starting lineup.
The player with the clearest path into the NBA comes off his junior year where he averaged a double-double on 54% shooting, adding 1.5 blocks to boot. He's an unselfish local kid from Pennsbury with range and athleticism. Here's what I wrote about him for my Ridiculous Upside piece about 2011 NBA Draft prospects.
The Philadelphia product is a 6'9 power forward with NBA role player written all over him. Even going back to high school (rival high school of mine), he always had a problem being assertive. He's the best player on the court most of the time and with his rebounding, improving outside jump shot, and shot-blocking ability, he needs to prove it more. Expect a dozen-plus double-doubles and a late first round selection in 2011.
He defers to teammates way too often. First it was Mark Tyndale, then Dionte Christmas, then Ryan Brooks. Now that he's the guy, he needs to demand the ball both inside and out, to prove that he can beat less able defenders. He's also one of the best passing big men in the nation. Through two games, he's averaging just under five assists. If he shows his assertiveness on both ends of the court, Lavoy could sneak into the top 20. Right now, he's a fringe first rounder.
Though he struggles too often with shot selection, Fernandez is a terrific player for this Temple team. Probably the best pure point guard since fellow Argentinean and fan-favorite Pepe Sanchez played for John Chaney, Juan brings a unique skill set to the table. He's not lightning fast, but he's got a first step capable of getting by his defender and is crafty enough in the lane to make off-balance shots while absorbing the contact. That's even more important when you consider his tremendous 45.3% three-point percentage last season (his overall FG% was 42.7). Staying in control in the lane will make him even more effective and dangerous against opponents.
Defensively, his height (6'4) allows him to recover from mistakes, but he struggles with quick and strong point guards -- like Sherron Collins last year in the Kansas loss at the Liacouras Center. He's a solid rebounder from the point guard position, but often tries to run out on fast breaks rather than scoop up floor boards and tipped balls. I'd liken him to Maryland's Greivis Vasquez, who went to the Grizzlies in the late first round of last year's draft. While Greivis is 6-6, Juan probably has a step on him. Fernandez should make an All-A10 team this season.
You can spot a raw Nigerian big man from miles away. The awkwardly mechanical footwork, the soccer tendencies, and freakishly long arms are hard to miss. Eric's got all of those. And while it looked like he'd always be a project for the greater part of two seasons of his college career, he certainly figured out a few things since the A-10 Tourney. When you know where to be on a basketball court, being big is much easier than it seems. Just be big. Eric pulled down a career-high nine rebounds in the game against Toledo. Progress.
He's really the wild card on this team. If he can excel in the high-low game with Lavoy, no other team in the conference will be able to defend them. He shouldn't be taking any shots outside of 7 feet. He shouldn't be dribbling more than twice. Know your role (and shut your mouth) and he'll have a great season. Defensively, he can block shots on his man because of his length and also off the ball when one of the guards gets beat. He's already got 7 blocks in two games. If Dunphy can get 12 and 7 out of him on 55% shooting, Temple is a Sweet 16 team.
Moore saw his role increase last season in A-10 play, averaging 16 points per game over a six-game stretch in February. Unlike Ryan Brooks, Moore lacks any sort of jump shot, relying on slashing and transition play to get his buckets. He's already knocked down two 3s this season though so maybe some offseason reps are paying off. Moore won't wow you with moves, but he plays under control, smart basketball. I'd like to see him get to the line more and work some give-and-go's with Allen and Eric.
Rahlir Jefferson/Scootie Randall
I'm mostly convinced these two are the same person. Their measurements are virtually identical, their numbers are 32 and 33, and their names are equally enjoyable to say. Dunphy will shuffle these two in at the small forward spot throughout the year. Randall is probably the better ball-handler and shooter, while Jefferson is the superior rebounder. All they have to do is hit open mid-range shots, pass it to the big guys, and finish in transition. Role players.
Tony's son T.J. DiLeo and freshman Aaron Brown will get the majority of bench minutes for both guard spots. T.J. isn't particularly good at anything but coming from a basketball family, he's a smart player. Brown has a shot to contribute significantly next year if Fernandez leaves early, and we should see flashes of potential and mindlessness from the 6'5 Newark native over the course of his first season.
Craig Williams, whom I loathe, will get occasional minutes at the 4/5, but spend most of his time camping out at the three point line and whining when he doesn't get passed the ball. He's 6-9, 240 pounds with absolutely no interest in rebounding. Monmouth transfer Dutch Gaitley could contribute as well from the post position, but he's a 6-9 center with a career 35% field goal percentage so I'm not expecting much.
Temple's got the best starting five in the Atlantic 10, but not much else after that. If Fran Dunphy can find a few dependable bench players to go to and not lose the starters by midseason, this team has the legs to get a few wins in the tournament. Breakout seasons from Lavoy Allen and Juan Fernandez wouldn't hurt either.
Prediction: 30-6. A-10 Champion. Sweet 16 in NCAA Tournament. Highest ranking: 9th.