Though the Temple Owls finished the regular season atop the American Athletic Conference as the outright regular season champions, it has been popularly agreed upon across several college basketball platforms that any team from the American can come out of the conference tournament as the team to claim the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament – and that is no exaggeration.
Temple currently has a 20-10 overall record and are 14-4 in conference play, giving them the top seed in the AAC tournament in Orlando this week. Despite being the best team in the American, Temple still sits firmly on the bubble in the eyes of many bracketologists, including Jerry Palm of CBSSports who currently has Temple as a 10-seed for the NCAAs. In large part, Temple is still considered a bubble team due to their poor non-conference play, where they played several respectable opponents such as UNC, Utah, Butler, Wisconsin, and Villanova, but came up short in all of those contests. Two tough one-possession losses against East Carolina and Memphis plus a blow-out home loss to Houston within the conference does not help the Owls’ resume either. That being said, to avoid the anxious waiting process on selection Sunday, Temple is going to have to win some games in the conference tourney to truly feel safe about their chances in returning to the big dance.
The American Athletic Conference tournament began on Thursday, with first round action that decided which of the lower seeds would have to face off against Temple. Since the Owls earned the top-seed in the tournament, they were awarded a first round bye along with the top six teams in the league.
In a closely contested matchup between East Carolina and South Florida, the USF Bulls were able to defeat that ECU Pirates 71-66 to advance to the quarterfinals, where they will play Temple at noon on Friday.
In the regular season, the Owls swept the season series against Orlando Antigua’s Bulls, and comfortably so. The scoring margins were not the largest, but in each of the two games, Temple seemed to be in control and composed against this season’s struggling USF squad. A loss to USF would certainly make things antsy for the Owls – the Bulls have an RPI of 233 and Temple is already 8-9 against the top 200 RPI – and may ultimately be what keeps them out of the NCAA tournament for the third straight year if that is how things play out. If the Owls handle business cleanly on Friday against USF though, that won’t guarantee them a spot in the big dance either, basically making the game a survive-and-advance contest.
If they advance, Temple would have to play either Cincinnati or UConn in the semi-finals, two other fellow bubble teams from the American. Just as the Owls did to the Bulls, Temple also swept the Cincinnati Bearcats and the UConn Huskies in the regular season. The four wins between the Bearcats and Huskies were arguably the most difficult wins for Temple this season.
Temple opened conference play earlier this season with a seven-point win in Cincinnati when the Bearcats were ranked #22/23 in the nation, thanks to some unexpected clutch shots by forward Daniel Dingle. Temple also took a double-overtime thriller at the Liacouras Center on January 16th where they won 67-65 in a physical, grind-it-out type of game.
Against UConn, the Owls took the first meeting in Hartford when Josh Brown hit a game winning floater to give Temple a 55-53 win over the then #23/24 Huskies. Then later on in the season, when the four-time national champions came to Philadelphia, Temple was able to storm back from a 12-point deficit with five minutes left in the game to win 63-58, once again thanks to the heroics of x-factor, Daniel Dingle.
In no way were any of those wins easy, and Temple is fortunate to earn season sweeps against two of the best teams in the conference, but a loss in the semis to either the Bearcats or the Huskies will definitely keep the Owls on the bubble. When bubble teams lose to bubble teams, the winner usually squeezes in while the loser gets bumped out. A win in the semis for Temple would be huge, and may be even tougher than winning the championship game due to the matchups created by the seedings and the desperateness of the teams on the bubble.
On the other side of the bracket stand Tulane, Houston, Memphis and Tulsa. If the Owls make it through to the championship round, they would have to play either of these teams. Temple is a combined 5-3 against these four American squads, carrying a sweep against Tulane and splits against the three other teams. This side of the bracket also holds two bubble teams as well in Tulsa and Houston.
As stated earlier, any of the eight teams left in the tournament can come away as the post-season champions and it really is difficult to make a sure prediction as to who can definitely win.
Houston, Cincinnati, and Tulsa each have 12-6 records in conference, play while five of the eight teams remaining boast 20-plus wins in their overall records. This conference is one of the most competitive ones in the nation, and due to that competitive nature, there is no sure team that is truly the dominant one. If Temple wants to be sure they make the big dance this year however, they must win. A loss in any of the rounds they have to play in, including the championship game, would do nothing but keep them on the bubble, and as we saw last year, you never know what will happen on selection Sunday, even if you are confident in your resume.
If one thing is for sure, it is that Temple can definitely win-out if they stay focused and alert. With the reliable scoring of Quenton DeCosey, the playmaking and ball security of Josh Brown, the rebounding of Jaylen Bond, the emergence of Obi Enechionyia’s offensive game, and the scoring spark off the bench in Devin Coleman, Temple certainly has all the tools to come away with the tournament championship if they execute and play hard.
Photo: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports