'The Significance of Temple's Bowl Berth' or 'The Existential Baggage Inherent in Shipping the Band to Albuquerque, New Mexico'

'The Significance of Temple's Bowl Berth' or 'The Existential Baggage Inherent in Shipping the Band to Albuquerque, New Mexico'

The Temple Owls did not meet their goal of winning the 2011 MAC Championship. This is a stand-alone point that requires no added explanation and possesses no reasonable refutation.

From the beginning of training camp all the way through to their official elimination at the hands of not one, but two different place kickers—neither of whom, by the way, were even playing Temple at the time—coach Steve Addazio and every single member of his program focused only on the conference title game in Detroit. It was the number one bullet point in every statement regarding the team's motivation, and the opening answer to every question about how Temple would ultimately measure itself.

But sadly for the coach, the team, and, ultimately, their perpetually disillusioned and cynical fans, the dream ended. The Owls, who fought all year for a for an accomplishment no longer in reach, were forced to pick themselves up and switch gears in an attempt to qualify for a bowl game. A month and a half later, they find themselves in (of all places) Albuquerque, New Mexico and without any discernible sense of failure. It's not "sort of" like all the MAC title talk never happened; in fact, it's exactly like it never happened.

Maybe some of that sentiment can be blamed on a convenient amnesia—that the original goal was merely forgotten in this new wave of still largely uncharted excitement—but even the most ardent defenders of Temple's "ever-rising" football program can't argue that the 2011 Owls didn't strive for something and ultimately fail.

Though, on the eve of the team's second bowl game in the last three years, it just doesn't really seem like that particular failure matters anymore. And there's a good reason why (even if it is a little disingenuous).

The beauty of qualifying for this bowl game is that both the university and its supporters have the potential to look back on this season and remember when the Owls made history. Bowl bids, especially in the modern era (when you can qualify even with a losing record), may not mean a lot to other institutions, but they certainly do to Temple. Such an appreciation for what others take for granted is no doubt the product of a history graced with such an opportunity a mere three times over the last thirty-two seasons.

When the Owls broke through with their bid to the 2009 EagleBank Bowl, securing their first postseason appearance in exactly three decades, it was a genuinely meaningful moment for a small, but disproportionately tortured fan base. No, they didn't beat UCLA on that impossibly cold night at RFK, but the very idea that the Temple was even in the game legitimately meant something. Whether students, fans and alums stayed at home to survey the game from indoors, or, as was a popular option for those in attendance, slugged pull after pull of whiskey in the hopes of keeping warm for even a few fleeting moments within the stadium's confines, there is a very good chance that those who watched remember exactly where and how they did so when Temple played in its first bowl game since 1979.

Saturday's meeting with the Wyoming Cowboys carries with it that same kind of gravity. Winning the Gildan New Mexico may not sound like much, but it doesn't really need to either. A Temple win ensures that 2011 will be remembered as the year the Owls ended their drought. Sure, long-term concerns will later set in regarding the future of certain players and the overall direction of the program, but whether or not they won the MAC title will prove wholly irrelevant in comparison to the sheer relief of that moment when Temple finally "did it."

That said, with that kind of emotion of the line, Saturday also carries with it the potential for yet another let down at the hands of the Temple Owls. This is a subject we've covered on this site in the past and one that could end the 2011 season on a profoundly sour note. A Wyoming upset would send Temple back to North Broad with neither a MAC title nor a bowl victory, but rather a familiar slap in the face, a reminder of what happens when Owls fans regretfully anticipate that which never comes.

Getting to the bowl game is still a welcome change, but its also part of the very reasonable expectations the team set for itself at the outset of this year's campaign. While 2009 was a celebration of simply "being there," 2011 needs to be a celebration of both being there and leaving there with a win. Just as it's no longer satisfying being "competitive," merely earning a bid isn't enough. It's once again time for the Owls to take their next step as an up-and-coming program, a step they've had trouble negotiating in any number of opportunities the past three seasons.

With all that in mind, if this to be a totally honest account of the significance of this single game, it's largely inarguable that all the following facts are, well, factual. 8-4 is a fine record for any football team in any conference. The Temple Owls are not the program they once were. One loss in a practically insignificant bowl game means as little as a win on that same stage. The majority of these games, after all, are indeed a sham, a fabrication of an important event which exists solely to make money absent any sense of true achievement. Lost in grand scheme of more important happenings across the landscape of college football, games like the Gildan New Mexico Bowl mean absolutely nothing.

That is, unless you're Temple. For Temple, this game has the power to literally make or break your entire season. For Temple, this game is of the utmost significance in your long-time search for respect and credibility. For Temple, a program for decades lost in the grand scheme of more important happenings across the landscape of college football, games like the Gildan New Mexico Bowl mean everything.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”