****The CBS Selection Show was down to the final bracket Sunday night, so Owls fans knew Temple's name was coming. Even better, with the benefit of seeing all the other 6/11 and 5/12 matchups on the board, they knew who Temple wasn't playing.
So when the 12/12 play-in game between California and South Florida popped up beneath No. 5 Temple, and one took the time to reflect on who else the Owls could have been paired with, Temple's first-round* draw appeared the most favorable of the possible outcomes.
Despite USF's performance against Cal Wednesday night, and some of the worry that's begun to build about the South Florida defense and the team's sudden ability to make jump shots, the draw remains favorable, even if Temple would have preferred to play the Golden Bears. Regardless, the Owls can ill-afford take their future conference rivals lightly (9:50 p.m. / TNT / 1210 AM)
Anticipating the style and predicting the winner of what could be the single ugliest game of the first round* after the jump...
Facing a One-Dimensional Opponent
South Florida surrendered the seventh-fewest points in the nation this season (56.8) and the 39th fewest points per possession (0.94). They acquired those statistics by defending the third-fewest possessions per game of any team in the country (60.3).
We should also note that although Temple hasn't been as defensively strong this season as they've been in years past, the USF offense is just absolutely abysmal. Out of 344 Division I Men's Basketball programs, the Bulls finished 325th in the country, averaging 59.6 points per game. Even more staggering, they finished third-to-last in the nation in offensive possessions per game with 60.3.
But understand: it's deliberate. USF's goal is to slow the game as much as possible and to frustrate opponents into making mistakes. Moreover, if the Bulls offense runs as much time off the shot clock as possible (either by choice or sheer ineptitude), then that's less time they have to spend defending. The best defensive teams will limit their opponent's opportunities with the ball before they even have to begin guarding anyone.
Setting the Pace
Conventional wisdom is that the Owls should be getting out on the break whenever possible so as to prevent the USF defense from having the opportunity to properly set itself in the half court and to maximize its own number of offensive opportunities against a team who won't allow many. That strategy is by no means misguided.
But Temple has also shown, once again this season as in countless others, a preference for playing at a very deliberate pace. Should that trend continue -- plus, it's not like they'll be able to get out in the open floor off every rebound -- then the game could very likely settle in to a slow, methodical and ugly game of basketball.
Don't Get Rattled and DON'T FORCE
Temple has the tools and the personnel to be very successful in transition, especially on its bench. Freshman Anthony Lee has shown a clear ability to run the floor and Aaron Brown's penchant for getting lost in corners and shooting open threes is a matchup nightmare for most defenses should Temple at any time decide to run four guards. As for the starters, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Ramone Moore are as athletic as they come, Khalif Wyatt is...unconventionally agile, and Juan Fernandez has the best vision of anyone on the floor.
All those attributes are real, but Temple cannot force their use if the opportunities aren't really available. The Owls, if they choose to, will not be the first team who has tried to run on USF. Not only will the Bulls be prepared, but Temple cannot be so concerned that it becomes overly aggressive, lobbing long, ill-advised home run passes. USF wants its opponents to play undisciplined, and Temple cannot fall into that trap by attempting anything too quick, too flashy or too risky.
The same holds true in the half court. Temple's offense is at its best when its players are moving on offense and, likewise, moving the basketball. It's not that they shouldn't run some clear outs for Moore or even Wyatt when possible, but that strategy isn't, has never been and should not become the Owls dominant style. Moreover, Temple has a nasty habit of playing the wrong kind of iso, by merely staring at the ball handler and taking up rather than creating space.
Either way, this group of Owls has never been afraid to run the shot clock down in order to find the best possible look, so they shouldn't get rattled at having to do it tonight. Even when that clock is getting low, panic cannot take hold. If the Owls suffer a violation or two after proving unable to hit the rim after 35 seconds, those instances need to be accepted, immediately forgotten and cannot be allowed to result in rushed or poor attempts.
Of course, when the Owls do find their good looks at the basket, they'll need to be efficient. They'll have far too few possessions to waste them with poor shooting or, worse, poor decision-making. Temple is ordinarily comfortable and actually prefers to play in the half-court -- they cannot afford to forget that, no matter how slow or painful the game should look or feel.
Fernandez and Moore Need to Lead (But in Different Ways)
These two combined, although not necessarily in tandem, to snap a streak of three-straight NCAA first-round* exits when they led the Owls just barely over the Penn State Nittany Lions last year. Their play will once again be vital, but for far different reasons individually.
Starting with Ramone, Moore is as talented a basketball player as their is in the city, the conference or, and feel free to incorrectly quibble this, the nation. His only shortcoming is that he tends to be too passive and too unselfish. Moore -- other than Wyatt, who has no qualms about taking the big shot or getting his -- is the Owls best option in the clutch. Regardless of how the team played against UMass last Friday, it was encouraging to see Moore take and hit three straight threes in the second half to get Temple back in the ballgame. That's the kind of leadership he will need to evince if his team is going to overcome difficulties to put together any meaningful run through the tournament. When the Owls run the shot clock to single digits tonight, Moore, more often than not, will need to be the one with the ball in his hands. Both he and his teammates will be to blame if he isn't.
Fernandez, separately, will most benefit his team by doing the exact opposite. He needs to lead by creating for others rather than forcing for himself. Yes, Juan is a streaky shooter, and streaky shooters get hot, but like everyone else, he's much better shooting open and/or in-rhythm looks. Really, for all of Juan's talents, his worst shortcoming is his insistence of driving to the basket late in the clock. That strategy is not poor, in principle -- it works for plenty of other players, including some on his own team -- it's just completely ineffective for him (Temple fans have seen too many rejected one-handed scoops to need to bear witness to more in what could be Juan's final tournament game). Fernandez has been at his best this season when he has, by his own admission, "let the game come to him." Sometimes that involves him scoring 20 or more. Other times that involves him racking up assists and shooting the ball only six to seven times. Whatever is or isn't available tonight, Fernandez has to accept it and play within himself. His flash has been a true pleasure to watch in his four-year career, but his responsibility with the basketball is that
which will be the most needed. If the above book on the Argentine senior seems too harsh, just consider it a preference for wanting to remember him for all the good he's done for his program, and not for what happened against San Diego State.
When Temple lost three first-round* games in a row to Michigan State, Arizona State and Cornell, it was their most talented, most experienced players who were shut down, rattled or otherwise held incapable of producing in the manner to which they were accustomed. Moore and Fernandez cannot fall into the trap against a team whose sole goal is to hold their opponents to less than 60 -- and sometimes 50 -- points tonight. If they do, then, well...Khalif Wyatt.
-- There will be limited possessions. Those limited possessions must be taken advantage of with the highest possible efficiency.
-- Likewise -- as was not yet touched on, but should be -- Temple cannot give up easy or lazy baskets on defense. USF is horrendous offensively, their shooting performance against Cal was an aberration, and Temple, therefore, needs not to cede baskets USF is incapable of generating on its own. Every failed stopped is one Temple will have to work that much harder to make up for on offense.
-- Unless Temple comes bursting out of the gate really excited, really hungry, really focused and really pissed off about their play over the last two weeks (which, frankly, is a very real possibility South Florida should find itself prepared for), then get ready to settle in for one of the ugliest basketball games of this year's NCAA tournament. USF will defend hard; Temple will be expected to run a lot of clock; USF will not score often; Temple will turn the ball over a lot; and it will all be unbearable to watch unless you really appreciate the intricacies of the game of basketball. You've been forewarned.
Prediction: First team to 60 wins
Getting to the NCAAs has become old-hat for Temple. That's a cocky statement, but its true. This team knew it was going to the dance a month ago. It had won three Atlantic 10 tournament in four years. So is it possible they just lost focus down the stretch?
We're calling for a Temple team who has been waiting all year for its next shot at the NCAAs to "take the Bulls by the horns" (sorry) and go on an early run. The game will eventually settle in, but Temple is taking this thing and immediately moving on to face Michigan Ohio Sunday.
(But remember all those concerns written above were published and explained for a reason.)
photos courtesy US Presswire