City 6 NCAA tourney outlook: It's a mess

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City 6 NCAA tourney outlook: It's a mess

Wow -- what a mess.

With a little more than a month left in the college basketball season, five of the City 6 team's tournament hopes remain alive, although none can be considered a sure thing and some are further out of the picture than others.

To start, the A-10 is the strongest its been in years, but its parity from top to bottom is doing more to hamper records than to bolster anyone's resume. League play is looking like a war of attrition, leaving the conference tournament and the A-10's number of NCAA bids wide open. Half of the teams in the league could be considered in the tournament or on the bubble, and there isn't enough room for all of them. The A-10, which currently has the seventh-highest conference RPI in the nation, has sent four teams to the dance twice within the last decade, most recently last year, but never any more after 1998 and typically only one to three. 

Then there's Villanova and Drexel, both of whom could take advantage of their respective conferences to find itself dancing, albeit for different reasons.

We'll open with the A-10 teams and go from there. But remember -- you were told the whole picture was a mess, especially with five weeks left. All RPI and SOS numbers courtesy realtimerpi.com.

La Salle Explorers (15-6, 5-3 A-10)

RPI: 31, SOS: 32
Key wins: Butler, VCU
Key losses: Central Connecticut State

Behind senior-transfer Ramon Galloway and junior point guard Tyreek Duren, La Salle appears to have finally taken that next step under head coach John Giannini. Unlike last year -- when the Explorers took advantage of a weak out-of-conference schedule but couldn't close games against better opponents -- La Salle built on its early-season success to knock off two ranked teams in the same week.

La Salle currently owns the second-highest RPI and SOS in the A-10, behind only Butler. The loss to Central Connecticut State was early enough in the year to be overcome, especially with wins vs. Butler and at VCU so fresh in the mind.

Their remaining eight games are split between four that should be easy enough (vs. Fordham, at Rhode Island, vs. Duquesne, vs. George Washington) and four that could cement or chip away at their tournament resume (at St. Bonaventure, vs. St. Joe's, at Temple, at St. Louis).

At the moment, they're in solid shape heading into the A-10 tournament -- one of five teams within a game or less of conference-leader VCU -- but there are enough landmines left to have them fighting for their season in Brooklyn along with the everyone else. You'll notice that's a theme that extends to the other two A-10 teams as well.

Temple (14-7, 3-4 A-10)

RPI: 49, SOS: 60
Key wins: Syracuse, Villanova
Key losses: Canisius, St. Bonaventure

The team that beat No. 3 Syracuse and almost beat No. 4 Kansas also lost to two inferior teams on its own home floor. Temple has struggled all year to produce a consistent effort, peaking and rising, usually, when the opponent merits it.

Five or their seven losses (Duke, Kansas, Xavier, Butler, St. Joe's) are of the good or acceptable variety, but the Canisius and Bonaventure games hurt both their resume and their win-loss record as conference play continues on. If Temple was 16-5 right now, instead of 14-7, the Owls would be able to stomach a few more tough losses in regular season play.

Instead, they have 10 games left to steady themselves. Their two key games remaining are against La Salle on Feb. 21 and VCU on the final day of the season. It will be easy to focus on those matchups, but Temple has to make sure it wins the other games it's supposed to. One or two more letdowns and the Owls will become just another part of a mad scramble in Brooklyn, in serious danger of missing the NCAAs for the first time in six seasons.

Exercising better shot selection (32.3 percent on 21.4 attempts from three per game) and cleaning up their defense could help.

Saint Joseph's (13-7, 4-3 A-10)

RPI: 79, SOS: 103
Key wins: Notre Dame, Temple
Key losses: Fairfield, St. Bonaventure

You're supposed to lose in Olean and beat the Bonnies at home. Both Temple and St. Joe's missed that memo.

Picked as the preseason favorite to win the A-10, St. Joe's ran into its fiercest competition early and lost close games to both VCU and Butler, games it simply couldn't close late.

The importance of this year's A-10 tournament has already been stressed, but here's why. In the 16-team conference, St. Joe's (4-3) sits behind or is tied with eight other teams, and it doesn't have the kind of key wins Temple and La Salle do over Top 10 opponents. Three difficult games remain on the Hawks' schedule (UMass, La Salle, St. Louis) and that's why coach Phil Martelli said Saturday night, after their win over Temple, that they were only allowed to enjoy themselves until 8:30 Monday morning.

They may not have a deep bench, but Kanacevic, Roberts and Aiken can -- and really should -- prove an inside-out matchup nightmare on a nightly basis. St. Joe's hasn't lived up to its preseason press, but it's always better to peak late than early.

As Martelli put it Saturday night: "There are no nights off. Rhode Island led Butler today at the half. ... We were out of the Atlantic 10 tournament a couple games ago. ... Now we can see the top of the league. Why not keep going?"

Villanova (13-9, 4-5 Big East)

RPI: 54, SOS: 21
Key wins: Lousiville, Syracuse
Key losses: Columbia, Providence (twice)

Will the real Villanova please stand up? Jay Wright's Wildcats knocked off Top-5 opponents in back-to-back games. Of course, those are Villanova's only two wins in its last seven games.

No matter what Wright says about his Wildcats not being fazed by their parade of turnovers, they have to stop giving the ball away. Villanova's 16 turnovers per game ties them with Florida Gulf Coast, UAB, Marshall, Southern Miss and Fordham for the 29th-most giveaways per game out of 347 Division I programs.

The good news: their SOS is high -- really high -- as a result of their Big East schedule. The wins over Louisville and Syracuse got them some Top 25 votes, but two losses to Providence, including one at the buzzer on Sunday, evidence a Villanova team that's still too erratic to win enough games in a conference like the Big East.

Sunday's loss didn't seal their fate, but it made the Wildcats' history-making week seem less like a statement and more like a happy accident.

The remainder of their schedule includes DePaul, USF, No. 17 Cinncinati, UConn, Rutgers, No. 24 Marquette, Seton Hall, Pitt and Georgetown, which should keep their RPI and SOS high. Our own Reuben Frank summed up the 'Cats future prospects nicely: "Villanova needs wins. Probably 20, including the conference tournament in New York, to reach the NCAA tournament."

Drexel (9-13, 5-5 CAA)

RPI: 193, SOS: 167
Key wins: None
Key losses: None

It's strange to think that Drexel stands as equal a chance of making the tournament this year as it did last year -- when it went 27-6 and wound up in the NIT -- but such is life in the CAA.

With Georgia State and ODU on the way out the door, and UNC-Wilmington and Towson academically ineligible, the 2013 CAA tournament will feature just seven teams.

The Dragons are without their best shooter, Chris Fouch, but they've acquitted themselves well in two losses to Northeastern (14-8, 9-1), who sits atop at the conference.

They don't have a single win against a team in the RPI Top-100, but it won't matter if they can find a way to win three in a row at the CAA tournament in Richmond.

Penn (4-16, 1-2)

RPI: 292, SOS: 172
Key wins: None
Key losses: Every one in league play

I don't mean to harp on a Penn team that's played better than its record at times this season. But Jerome Allen's team is too young, too raw and probably already too far behind. Unless they run the table the rest of the way in the Ivy ... nevermind.

With new name, new number, Phillip Walker remains key for successful Temple season

With new name, new number, Phillip Walker remains key for successful Temple season

One would think that Temple’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, completions and total offense might not want to change much.

Think again.

Entering his senior season, Owls quarterback Phillip Walker is embracing plenty of changes, starting with his own name.

“It was a maturity thing for me,” Walker said last week during the team’s annual media day of the decision to ditch the nickname P.J. for his given name Phillip. “The older I get, the less I wanted to be called P.J. 

“It’s just something that I wanted to do. I didn’t mind being called P.J. or anything like that, but I feel like the more I get older and older and the more I’m about to get into the real world of being done with football in a year or whatever or at the next level or anything, I’d rather be called Phillip than P.J.”

While the name switch may take a while for Walker’s teammates to get used to, it shouldn’t be an issue for Matt Rhule. Temple’s head coach has routinely referred to Walker as Phillip over the years … when he was upset with the QB’s performance on the field.

“He told me, ‘Coach, you can keep calling me P.J. but I’m going to try to go by Phillip to everybody moving forward,’” Rhule explained. “I call him Phillip. When I get angry, I call him Phillip a lot. I call him P.J. probably on the practice field. There was a tweet I said I’ll call you Phillip if you call me Matt. I called Coach Paterno Joe. That’s what we did at Penn State, so he tweeted Matt and I are getting ready for a great year.

“I’ll call him Phillip. I’ll call him Walker. I’ll call him P.J. I’ll call him a lot of other things.”

The Owls are most proud of the fact that they can call Walker a leader. The quarterback has made great strides during his time on North Broad Street, both on the field and in the locker room.

No one knows just how far Walker has come more than starting running back Jahad Thomas. The two, who attended Elizabeth High School in New Jersey together and won a state sectional championship in 2012, are close friends and roommates.

“Unbelievable. I’m really at a loss for words on that question because where we’re from not too many guys get that opportunity,” Thomas said of his trek from high school to college with Walker. “To see friends and someone that’s like a brother to me just go through the journey that I’ve been through – the losing seasons, the ups and downs throughout our careers and our lives, the different paths that we took to get here – for us to just have that type of bond and to have another four years coming into college, playing here and winning that [American Athletic Conference East Division] championship, it’s just greatness. 

“Somebody like that you really cherish just outside of the field, not only for what they can do on the field but for who he is and what type of role he plays in my life. I’ve been excited for him since high school, since we started playing together, his freshman year playing, getting to start versus Louisville. Just seeing him blossom after that, man, it kind of brings tears to my eyes.”

The advancement in Walker’s maturation is exactly what TU is hoping for, but the quarterback isn’t about to pretend he is a finished product by any means.

Walker (5-11, 205) was able to throw for a career-high 2,973 yards with 19 touchdowns and cut his interceptions to eight — down from 15 — in 2015. However, his completion percentage was 56.8, a number he wants to bump up to 65.0 percent this season.

Getting Walker, who trails Henry Burris by only 121 yards and 72 attempts for No. 1 on Temple’s all-time list, to check the ball down when necessary is something quarterbacks coach and new offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas has stressed during the summer.

“I’ve gotten better at [checking the ball down] throughout the past couple days of camp,” Walker said. “It’s just something that Coach Thomas preaches every single day — completions, completions, winning plays. Just going up there with a purpose at the line of scrimmage, knowing what’s going on, knowing when to make checks, knowing when to change the plays and things like that, just having a purpose and knowing what to do on the field.”

Those decisions to check the ball down instead of forcing the big play are what TU hopes can take Walker to a new level on the field. And, frankly, the team will need it to have any chance of repeating last season’s historic success.

The Owls lost defensive back Tavon Young, defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis and linebacker Tyler Matakevich to the NFL draft. Those are three key pieces to a fearsome 2015 unit that helped lead the team to its second 10-win season and fifth bowl game appearance in program history.

That means the 2016 squad will flip its focus from having a powerful defense to being a force on offense, as Walker looks to become the first Temple quarterback ever to lead his team to two bowl games.

He’ll do so with one more change: a new number. Walker ditched his No. 11 and will play his senior season in a single-digit jersey, given out by the staff to the Owls’ toughest players. Walker will don No. 8, previously worn by stalwart LB Matakevich.

From the heart and soul on defense to his counterpart on offense.

“He’s the key. Phillip’s the key to us being a dominant offense,” Rhule said. “We’ve been really good on defense for a while. We’ve never really been a dominant offense. It’s not just his play. It’s him demanding that guys do things right all the time. There’s always been guys on defense who have demanded that we play at a certain standard every rep, every play of practice. What you’re seeing right now is you’re seeing guys like Phillip and like Jahad demanding that from the offense.”

“I put a lot of pressure on myself every day just to be out there to be the best player on the football field, be as good as I know can be each and every day,” Walker said. “I know if I’m at my best then guys around me will be at their best.”

Experience a day in the life of Temple football's training camp

Experience a day in the life of Temple football's training camp

Before their classmates even stepped foot on campus, Temple football was going through what was possibly their toughest test of the season—three weeks of training camp.

Coach Matt Rhule and the Owls gave us a behind-the-scenes look at what the players and coaches go through during a day of camp in the video above. We were there through the meetings, meals and walk-thrus before the team eventually departed for the Phillies game. It was a 12 + hour day for the players, but with walk-thrus replacing actual practice, this particular day was considered a “light” one.

This Temple squad still have veteran leadership returning from last season, but they have to replace multiple NFL draft picks on defense. Everyone from seniors to freshmen will be looked upon to keep up the Owls' strong defense going (see story)

Rhule is in his fourth season as the Owls' head coach. After going 2-10 in his first season, Rhule has brought Temple to a 10-4 record a year ago, highlighted by an appearance in the AAC Championship Game and the Boca Raton Bowl. However, the Owls are already moving past their strong 2015 (see story).

For a look at Temple's training camp, check out the video above.

Temple's defense counting on several to replace production of NFL draft picks

Temple's defense counting on several to replace production of NFL draft picks

With just over a week to go before the season opener vs. Army at Lincoln Financial Field, it’s tough to pin down a way or even a few words to describe the 2016 incarnation of the Temple Owls.

There’s still veteran leadership on the offensive side of the ball with quarterback Phillip Walker and running back Jahad Thomas back for their senior seasons.

But the program has now reached the point where head coach Matt Rhule, entering his fourth year at the helm, and his staff can really start molding the Owls into their vision. Members of highly-rated, athletic recruiting classes of recent years continue to filter their respective ways into important roles.

At this time last year before the season opener against Penn State, the pulse of Temple’s team was clear — experienced, ferocious defense.

But even with star linebacker Tyler Matakevich (Pittsburgh Steelers), defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis (Washington Redskins) and cornerback Tavon Young (Baltimore Ravens) graduating and moving on to the NFL, there’s some very talented and experienced players to fill their roles as the Owls continue to evolve.

So that invites this question: Who’s being counted on to produce and fill the shoes of those who’ve moved on?

Let’s start with the obvious hole in production at linebacker without Matakevich, who finished his Temple career with 493 tackles and punctuated that stellar career with last year’s Bronco Nagurski Award, given to the nation’s best defensive player.

Redshirt senior Stephaun Marshall will slide over to SAM linebacker and take Matakevich’s old WILL linebacker spot. While Matakevich was a generational talent, Rhule is confident Marshall will be able to contribute to the Owls’ defense.

“He’s moved to be a productive guy,” Rhule said Tuesday during Temple’s media day. “I think he’ll play really well.”

Being a productive player is something Marshall, a Montclair, New Jersey native, is used to. In 38 games with the Owls over the past three seasons, Marshall has recorded 113 total tackles, 11 pass deflections, 2½ sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and one interception. He’s also used to moving positions — he started his collegiate career as a safety before moving to the SAM spot in 2014.

And Marshall will be set up nicely to increase his production in 2016. In defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s aggressive scheme, the WILL spot is known to be the most productive on the field. Previous guys at that spot under Snow include former NFL players Pat Tillman (241 tackles) and Adam Archuleta (203 tackles) at Arizona State, and, of course, Matakevich at Temple.

Another player to keep an eye on at the WILL linebacker spot is redshirt freshman Chapelle Russell, who’s currently No. 2 on the depth chart behind Marshall. Still, Russell could see some time as Rhule and his staff have gushed about his potential for a long time now. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Russell is an athletic specimen.

“Chapelle Russell has infinite talent,” Rhule said Tuesday. “He’s got tremendous upside. It’s just gonna be whether he does it. He’s a redshirt freshman. Some days he’s out there and makes every tackle. Some days his shoulder bothers him a bit or something like that or it’s Coach Rhule told him he couldn’t wear this pair of socks and he’s not quite at the same level. We’re just trying to get him to be the same guy every day.”

As far as the defensive line is concerned, there’s no true answer yet on the inside to replace Ioannidis. Senior Averee Robinson, redshirt junior and North Carolina transfer Greg Webb, redshirt sophomore Freddie Booth-Lloyd and true freshman Karamo Dioubate are all in the mix to play key roles at defensive tackle.

The Owls are set up nicely at defensive end, though, with Praise Martin-Oguike and Haason Reddick back for their senior seasons.

Martin-Oguike had 30 tackles, four sacks and an interception last season. Reddick, a former walk-on from Camden and Haddon Heights High School in South Jersey, made noise last season with 45 tackles and five sacks, all while paying his own way to school without a scholarship.

“I got here and he wasn’t even on the team,” Rhule said of Reddick on Tuesday. “All he’s done is battle for his spot. He played last year at an all-conference level while not being on scholarship.”

Reddick was put on scholarship after last season. During this preseason camp, he was awarded jersey No. 7, an achievement as the Owls annually award single-digit jersey numbers to those voted toughest by teammates.

Sharif Finch, who had an interception against Penn State last year, is also in the mix on the defensive line.

The cornerback situation is a bit more unsettled at this point.

After last season, the Owls seemed set there with star Sean Chandler, who had four picks in 2015 and returned two of them for touchdowns. But the staff decided to move Chandler, a junior, to safety during the offseason to better utilize his athleticism and because it felt it would be the better position for his pro prospects going forward.

What’s left at corner after Chandler’s move is a mish-mash of depth. There’s no shortage of players who have the potential to make an impact, according to Rhule.

Redshirt senior Nate Hairston and redshirt junior Artrel Foster both saw time there last season and played well. Redshirt sophomore Derrick Thomas and redshirt freshman Kareem Ali are also in the mix.

But it sure sounded Tuesday like Rhule is waiting for one or two of them to stand out during the early part of the season.

“Thomas is playing at a high level. Foster was playing at a really high level but he just has some nicks right now, so he’s fighting to get back. Hairston is coming on and Ali is coming on, too,” Rhule said. “I think our corners, we feel like we have a lot of depth.

“The thing about playing corner is you have to get beat. You have to go into a game and really get beat and then respond to it. We have a lot of guys who have the talent to do it, they just haven’t gone into a game and got run by yet. How they respond is a true marker of how they are as a corner.”

The cornerback question may not get an answer for a couple of weeks, at least. Army runs the triple-option offense and rarely throws. On the schedule after Army is Stony Brook, an FCS squad.

That leaves the Sept. 17 game vs. Penn State at Beaver Stadium as the first true test for Temple’s corners. And for the defense as a whole.