Temple Notes: Rhule confident in young defense

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Temple Notes: Rhule confident in young defense

Despite Temple’s struggles on defense last season, head coach Matt Rhule is not shy to say it will be a much-improved part of the 2014 team.

“When we were rolling here, we built it around the defense,” Rhule said Monday on ESPN’s telecast of the American Athletic Conference media day in Newport, R.I. “I think we’re moving back towards that with the way some of [the guys] are developing themselves, some of the guys we’ve brought in in the secondary and our pass rush.”

The Owls allowed 476.5 yards per game on defense last season, but Rhule noted Temple allowed less than 250 yards per game in each of the final two games. On top of building on the late-season surge, the defense is now a year older and the coaching staff has had a full year to scout the opposing American offenses.

He believes the turnaround and improvement of young defensive players has hinged on trust. Additionally, the shared experience of losing 10 games a season ago has helped to bring the team together.

“It really started last year just getting them to trust us and trust in the process,” Rhule said. “I think what last year did was it really brought us together as a program.

“I was the third head coach in four years. As a young person, I don’t care how much you may want to trust somebody, that’s hard. I think what we did last year, what we went through last year, we stayed together. We never fractured, and now we’re moving forward as one program.

“Those young guys, they’ve been through some wars now. I think that they really trust what the coaches are telling them, we really trust them, and we’re going to move forward together.”

Matakevich solidifying Owls' D
Whatever success the Owls' defense has in 2014 will likely hinge on the play of Tyler Matakevich.

Matakevich anchored the Owls’ defense last season, leading the nation with 99 solo tackles and earning first team All-Conference honors from the American. He recorded 137 total tackles and 11.5 tackles for a loss from the linebacker position.

He was only a sophomore.

“He’s done it in all situations against all opponents and he’s played at a really, really high level,” Rhule said.

Now in his junior season, Matakevich is poised to do his part in improving the 29.8 points Temple allowed per game last year. Matakevich finds himself on the Bednarik Award (nation’s top linebacker) preseason watch list, but like his teammate P.J. Walker, he would pass up the individual accolades in exchange for team victories (see story).

Rhule said the 6-foot-1 Stratford, Conn. native has bulked up to 238 pounds and is “in the best shape of his life.”

Battle in the backfield
Temple returns its three top running backs in Kenneth Harper, Zaire Williams and Jamie Gilmore. The senior Harper heads into 2014 as the clear-cut No. 1 back after tallying 646 yards and nine touchdowns on 136 carries.

But will Williams or Gilmore see the bulk of the carries behind Harper?

As a freshman last season, Williams was second on the team in rushing, amassing 556 yards and three touchdowns on 101 carries. Gilmore gained 195 yards last year as a sophomore, and showed the kind of explosion he can provide, rushing for 92 yards on 16 carries against Memphis.

“We’ve got our thunder back with Kenny, but we’ve got to find our lightning to go along with him,” Rhule said.

Villanova stays put at No. 2 for the 3rd straight week

Villanova stays put at No. 2 for the 3rd straight week

Villanova stayed put in the national rankings this week.

The defending champion Wildcats remained the No. 2 overall team in the Associated Press top-25 poll behind 24-0 Gonzaga. The Bulldogs received 59 first-place votes while Villanova received five votes. Kansas, which came in at No. 3, received the other No. 1 vote.

The Wildcats stayed where they were in the rankings after holding their own with two comfortable road wins, in large part thanks to sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson. Brunson was the big man on campus this week, beginning with a team-high 18 points in a 75-62 win at DePaul on Monday. He followed it up with his first career double-double as he put together a 22-point, 10-assist effort in a blowout win over Seton Hall in Newark on Saturday.

The win over the Pirates meant the Wildcats clinched a share of the Big East regular-season title for the fourth straight year. One win in their last three regular season games or one loss each by Butler and Creighton would hand Villanova sole possession of the Big East crown. 

Therefore, it's only fitting that the Wildcats' next two games are against none other than Butler and Creighton. Butler handed Villanova its first loss of the season back on Jan. 4 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, but the No. 22 Bulldogs have to travel to Philadelphia for the rematch on Wednesday. The No. 23 Blue Jays then head to the Pavillion for a Saturday afternoon duel. The Wildcats beat Creighton, 80-70, on New Year's Eve in Omaha.

At this point last season, Villanova had four losses (two in conference) and had just a one-game lead in the Big East. This year, they have much more room for comfort, albeit with a tough week with two ranked opponents ahead of them. 

Behind the top three, which remained static this week, the Pac 12 had three teams ranked 4-6 – Arizona, UCLA and Oregon – in the poll this week. The ACC had six teams in the top 25, including No. 7 Louisville, No. 8 North Carolina and No. 10 Duke. Baylor, which lost to Kansas on Saturday, fell from No. 4 to No. 9. 

Temple's youth shows again as lead slips away late in loss to UConn

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Temple's youth shows again as lead slips away late in loss to UConn

BOX SCORE

Temple’s Sunday tilt with UConn at the Liacouras Center was the embodiment of a young team trying to find its way.

The Owls had a double-digit lead against one of the hottest teams in the nation, thanks in part to their young guys producing in pivotal moments in the game.

However, the inability to finish cost Temple again, as the Owls allowed Jalen Adams to convert a reverse layup with 2.9 seconds remaining in a 64-63 loss to the Huskies (see Instant Replay).

“It’s hard,” Temple Head Coach Fran Dunphy said after the loss. “We have two of these now. We have Tulsa (70-68 on Jan. 14) and Connecticut at the buzzer at home. There’s not a lot to say.

“If we all make one better decision, including me, whether it’s a defensive set, a substitution or whatever. They hold onto the ball, they get a rebound, they make a shot, whatever it happens to be. We all make one better decision and we’re coming away with two great wins in Tulsa and UConn and not sitting here after two tough losses.”

After UConn hit a three to tie the game at 60, Temple freshman Quinton Rose made a huge three-pointer of his own to put the Owls back up 63-60 with 2:32 left in the game.

With Temple (14-14, 5-10 AAC) still clinging to a three-point lead, sophomore Shizz Alston, Jr. came up with a huge offensive rebound, only to turn it over with 1:08 left on the clock. Adams came up with the steal and raced up the court, but was fouled by Rose while attempting a dunk.

Following Adams’ two makes at the free-throw line, Temple’s lead was trimmed to just 63-62. On the ensuing possession, senior Daniel Dingle was fouled by UConn guard Rodney Purvis.

Dingle missed the front end of a one-and-one set at the line, which set the stage for Adams’ acrobatic shot to give the Huskies (14-12, 9-5 AAC) their seventh win in the last eight games.

“We knew they were going to come off that high ball screen with Adams,” Dunphy said. “We needed to sit down and keep him in front of us. One guy could have helped a little bit more than he did. It would have been a drive and kick for an open jumper, but it would have been better than [a layup]. The other guy just needs to sit down on that play and keep Adams in front of him, but we knew that ball screen was coming.”

“I honestly thought the ball was going to Purvis because he made the last three shots, so I did my best to deny him,” Dingle said. “[Adams] did a fantastic move.”

Things had been going Temple’s way for a majority of the night. The Owls led for the vast majority of game time thanks in part to 5 of 9 shooting from three in the first half, which gave them a 35-29 halftime lead. The lead increased to 56-46 with 8:29 left in the contest.

Dingle’s all-around play and leadership helped push Temple ahead. Freshmen Damien Moore and Alani Moore II combined for 22 points on 9 of 10 shooting.

However, the Owls went cold late. Temple made only 2 of 12 three-point shots in the second half.

UConn's day went in the opposite direction as the Huskies shot a blistering 54.2 percent in the second half and 62.5 percent from downtown. Purvis poured in 13 of his game-high 18 after intermission.

“The younger guys are doing very well,” said Dingle, who finished with 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. “We’re going to learn how to win. They’re doing a great job. It just so happens that we let one get away again.”

The Owls have made close defeats a habit. Sunday marked their fifth loss this season by five points or less.

These type of losses are the reason why Temple is in the eighth spot in the American Athletic Conference. With three regular-season games left and the AAC conference tournament quickly approaching, this Temple team, which holds victories over No. 9 West Virginia and No. 17 Florida State, will need to start showing the same promise it had earlier in the season to keep alive any dreams of dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

“I definitely talk to the guys about having that sense of urgency,” Dingle said. “For me, time is running out, so that’s the sense of urgency I’ve got. We’ve got to get there as a whole. I say that in the huddle, ‘We’ve got to get there.’ I remember being a freshman to now I’m in my fifth year. Time is not waiting, so every game we’ve got to go out there and play like it’s our last.

“The sense of urgency I think is all right but it has to increase. In order for us to get an opportunity to play in the NCAA [Tournament] – that’s something I want to do and I know the team wants bad for us as a whole and definitely for the seniors. Coach talks about the sense of urgency has to pick up.”