By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)Last year’s inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference was supposed to represent a fresh start for Temple, a new beginning. Unfortunately for Owls fans, it was the beginning of a season-long nightmare, as Fran Dunphy’s squad had one of the worst years in program history. The Owls lost more games than any previous group to don the cherry and white, as they missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2006-7 campaign. After it was all said and done, Temple finished 9-22, including just 4-14 in the new AAC. Fans are understandably eager to put such a lost season behind them.
The main culprit in the Owls’ struggles a year ago was the defense. Temple was literally one of the worst defensive teams in the nation, allowing 78.9 points per game (330th in the country), and ranking 257th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense rating. The Owls’ opposition shot a sparkling 47.4% against them, including 35.9% from three, as Temple often struggled to defend on the interior. Those difficulties were due in part to injuries, a thin rotation with scholarships set aside for incoming transfers, and big man Anthony Lee (though he led the team at 8.6 rebounds per game) playing out of position as a 5 instead of a rangy power forward.
The hope for improving the defense will lie in the Owls’ new starting frontcourt. One of those transfers I mentioned is 6’8″ power forward Jaylen Bond, a transfer from Texas who will be a big body down low and provide some muscle for the interior defense. The junior has the versatility to guard smaller players as well, but will really be counted on to lock down opposing power forwards. Starting alongside him at center will be 6’11” junior Devontae Watson, who saw some minutes off the bench last season. Though he’s still very unpolished offensively, Watson averaged over 1 block per game in limited minutes and projects as a solid rim-protector for the Temple back line.
While the hope is that Bond and Watson (sounds like a British banking conglomerate) will improve the defense, offensively is where the Owls might take a step back with the departures of Lee and Dalton Pepper. Lee, who averaged 13.6 points per game last year, used the NCAA graduate transfer rule to leave North Philly and head to Columbus to play this season for Ohio State as a redshirt senior. However, the graduating senior Pepper, the team’s leading scorer last season at 17.5 points per game, is probably the bigger loss. Shooting 37.5% from behind the arc, he was the only consistent threat from the outside for the Owls; someone will have to step up as a knockdown shooter to keep defenses from sagging into the lane to cut off dribble penetration.
With Pepper and Lee no longer around, even more of the offensive burden will fall to the returning backcourt of Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey. Cummings, the senior entering his third year as a starter, is a steady presence at the point guard position and the biggest reason the offense should continue to hum along despite all the new faces. DeCosey came on strong as in his sophomore year, averaging over 15 points per game and having some big games from behind the arc (two contests with 6 made threes). He’ll look to be a more consistent shooter, as he shot just 33.5% from three, but he appears poised to take an even larger role this season.
The fifth starter may switch over midway through the season, as transfer Jesse Morgan, a graduate student who started two years at UMass before suffering an ACL injury, was given one semester of eligibility by the NCAA and is likely to take the spring. Until then, redshirt sophomore Dan Dingle will look to put down a claim on the spot. The 6’7″ wing is coming off a major injury of his own, as he missed most of last year with a torn meniscus in his right knee. He’ll provide good size defensively on the perimeter, while also hoping to act as another scoring option from behind the arc.
Rounding out the roster are a couple new faces and some holdovers from last year’s team. Junior Devin Coleman will be eligible after the first semester, after transferring from Clemson, and will provide some scoring bunch off the bench for the backcourt. Obi Enechionyia, the only true freshman on the roster, will provide depth behind Bond and Watson. Standing at 6’8″, he projects as a strong rebounding while also having some shooting range to the outside. Finally, sophomore Josh Brown is a lock-down defender at back-up point guard, and 6’8″ sophomore Mark Williams, who started 11 games as a true freshman, will round out what should be a much better defensive unit throughout the line-up.
The biggest obstacle to the Owls making a huge jump this season is their difficult non-conference schedule. In addition to the bloodbath that is the Big 5 games games, the Owls will take part in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament, where they’ll play Duke, and then either Stanford or UNLV at the Barclay’s Center. With a contest against Kansas at the Wells Fargo Center, and a trip to play the always dangerous Delaware Blue Hens, their slate outside the AAC stacks up against anyone’s in the country. That’s before Temple even enters conference play, where among others, they’ll have 2 contests against the defending national champions in UConn.
The Owls should be a more balanced team this year than last year’s squad that was strong offensively but an absolute sieve on the defensive end. Temple was picked to finish 6th in the AAC Coaches’ poll, which feels about right. The influx of transfers and continued improvement from the returning underclassmen should have the Owls back around .500, but a return to the Big Dance might still be another year away.