Temple guard Shizz Alston Jr. attempts a shot against Wisconsin.
(Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University)
Two years ago, Temple wedged their way into the NCAA Tournament, drawing a tough Iowa team. The Owls were led by Quenton DeCosey, their clear number one scoring option, who had put up nearly 16 points per game during the regular season. Coming in as a 10 seed, Temple fell behind early, but roared back, cutting Iowa’s lead to three with less than a minute remaining. The game was on the line and everyone knew that the ball was going to DeCosey. So, with seconds left in regulation against Iowa, and Temple still down three, the Owls turned to DeCosey, who was fouled on a three-pointer. He knocked down all three foul shots. Bang. Bang. Bang. The senior sent the game to overtime.
Five years ago, Temple once again found their way into the NCAA Tournament. This time they would make it past the first round, facing number one seeded Indiana in the Round of 32. The Owls would lead for much of the game, battling Victor Oladipo and Indiana to the final buzzer. Temple wasn’t even supposed to have a shot against the top seeded Hoosiers, but the Owls were led by a clear cut fearless number one scoring option: Khalif Wyatt. Wyatt, even more than DeCosey, had carried his team, averaging 20 points per game on 14 shots per game. The Atlantic 10 Player of the Year was the heart and soul of one of the best Temple teams in recent history.
Even though both Temple squads would lose to the higher seeded teams of Iowa and Indiana, their successes were indicative of a larger trend that goes back years further. Whether it was Ramone Moore, Ryan Brooks, or even Dionte Christmas, Temple’s best teams in the Fran Dunphy era have all had a clear cut number one scoring option. When things went arie, the ball went back to the number one scoring option. When the clock was ticking down, the ball went back to the number one scoring option. There was always an outlet who could score better than anyone else on the court. Every single one of Dunphy’s NCAA tournament teams has had that player.
But does this year’s Temple team have that guy?
Coming into the season, the 2017-18 squad was touted as one of the most deep Temple teams in recent memory. They had steady point guard Josh Brown and sharpshooting guard Shizz Alston. Quinton Rose was the athletic, playmaking 3-man, while Obi Enechionyia could catch-and-shoot, block shots, and jump over everyone. Topped off with two ‘5’ men who could complement each other in Ernest Aflakpui and Damion Moore, along with dead eye shooting point guard Alani Moore and a talented freshmen class, this team looked like the program’s best in a long time. In past years, with their superstar power, Temple had made it to and played well during the NCAA tournament. Still, like as the Iowa and Indiana game show, they always fell short. While the teams’ thrived with a go-to scorer, they could have used more around that scorer. This year might have been that year.
They began the season proving the prediction correct. Dunphy’s squad knocked off the Power 5 teams of Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. But they have also had a few tough spots. Two losses to La Salle (7-10) and George Washington (8-9), put a sour taste in the mouths of Temple faithful. That would all have been easily cured, however, with a win against Villanova at home. Instead, the Owls came out flat, got down early, and finished the game with a 20-point loss, allowing the Wildcats to shoot 60% from the field and 46% from 3.
Three days later they would barely sneak by Drexel, before being handled once again, losing by nearly 20 points to a highly regarded Georgia team. It wasn’t much longer before they would allow 85 points to Tulane and blow a halftime lead against Houston, giving them back-to-back-to-back losses. At that point it became clearer than ever. The Owls were missing a legitimate number one scoring option, someone to take over the game when things went south.
Instead, they have been going with a number one scoring option by committee. Sometimes that means it’s Rose’s turn. Other times it means that it is Alston’s turn. Sometimes it’s even Enechionyia’s or Brown’s turn. It has left the team without an offensive identity and that stems from a lack of identity at the top of the helm.
The team has specifically struggled with organization, especially on the offensive end. When things start to falter it feels like everyone tries to play hero ball. They fail to get good shots and despite the return of Josh Brown, who was supposed to add more “calmness” to the offense, they have had trouble getting into the flow on the offense end at times. Defense is a whole other issue, but if they can’t keep up offensively, which stems from a go-to scorer, Temple will find themselves watching the NCAA Tournament from home once again.
Their go-to scorer will have to come from Shizz Alston Jr or Quinton Rose. Alston is the more polished scorer, with his ability to play out of the pick-and-roll and hit tough jumpshots. He is methodical like a lot of Temple’s most recent go-to scorers, feeling out his defenders and always playing at his own speed. Rose is the better playmaker. At 6-foot-8, with point guard quickness, Rose can cut through the defense, while finish against the trees. Both can settle for bad shots sometimes, but they both present the ability to score in bunches, efficiently, and consistently. Neither have taken the charge, however, and when Temple has struggled, they both have been unable to weather the storm together.
Temple has specifically had trouble scoring early in the game. As a result, they’ve had to claw back into the game from being down early on. They’ve had trouble doing that however, in large part due to their offensive struggles. When they’ve fallen behind, they haven’t been able to recover. In six of Temple’s nine losses, they were trailing at halftime. In all eight of their wins, they were ahead at halftime.
During the times when they fall behind at halftime, Temple has looked disorganized on offense, often settling for quick, erratic shots. In the past, Temple has been able to turn to players like Wyatt or DeCosey to settle the offense. They wouldn’t always be the ones to take the best shots, but there was a sense of security when they had the ball and the game did not feel out of reach. Temple, like mentioned before, has a few players who could serve that role this year. The deciding factor will be making sure that one of them is given the keys. That could be determined by head coach Fran Dunphy himself or that could decision could be a direct product of one of the players distinguishing themselves. That would make the team’s offensive roles more defined, providing more structure to the Temple offense.
In one of their most recent games against number 19 ranked Cincinnati, the Owls defied all expectations and led for most of the game. While they were sparked by their stout defense, they were efficient offensively, owning the tempo of the game. While Cincinnati wanted to get out and run, Temple kept the game slow. After watching the first half it was hard not to wonder that maybe Temple didn’t need a go-to scorer. But when the game was on the line late, the team struggled once again. They sped up, failed to get good shots, and couldn’t find the bottom of the basket as Cincinnati clamped down on the defensive end. In the final five minutes, they would score just three points with zero converted field goals to Cincinnati's 12 points. The game was a pure representation and just reinforced the point that they could not win without a go-to scorer.
At the same time, many of the country’s best teams play without a go-to scorer, instead having multiple options to put the ball in the basket when necessary. The bottom line is that the Temple offense does not have an identity right now. They have trouble getting into the flow of the game, especially early on, where they have really struggled. Having someone to dictate the tempo and command the team will go a long way in weathering the storms when this Temple team gets behind.