The Atlantic 10 regular-season crown is in sight for No. 20 Temple, which can clear a major hurdle to that goal Wednesday night in a visit to Saint Louis.
The Owls (24-5, 12-2) are tied with No. 25 Xavier atop the conference, and hold the tiebreaker by virtue of a 77-72 home win over the Musketeers on Jan. 20. Temple has not finished with a share of any type of regular-season title since tying Saint Joseph’s for the then-East Division title in 2001-02.
Winning at Saint Louis (19-9, 10-4) won’t be easy since the Billikens’ 15 home wins lead the conference. The Owls are the first ranked team to visit Chaifetz Arena this season.
“We’ve made a name for ourselves and everybody wants to beat us,” guard Juan Fernandez said.
This matchup will feature two top defensive teams with Temple leading the Atlantic 10 with a 37.9 defensive field-goal percentage and Saint Louis fourth at 39.5 percent. The Billikens are limiting opponents to 26.7 percent shooting on 3-pointers for one of the best marks in the country while the Owls are second in the conference in that department at 28.1 percent.
Temple used strong perimeter defense in a 65-53 win at La Salle on Sunday, harassing the Explorers into 4-of-19 3-point shooting. The Owls trailed 33-32 at halftime before scoring 18 straight points after the break to take control.
Fernandez led Temple with 23 points as he matched a career high with seven 3-pointers, bringing back memories of his seven 3s against then-No. 3 Villanova in a 75-65 win Dec. 13 that vaulted the Owls into the national spotlight.
“I knew that we were going to need to make shots,” Fernandez said Sunday. “I was thinking about it.”
Fernandez is one of three guards in Temple’s lineup that is at least 6-foot-3, and that could be an advantage in defending 5-10 Billikens leading scorer Kwamain Mitchell. Mitchell averaged 17.5 points in Saint Louis’ 7-1 February.
Saint Louis got a spectacular closing stretch from Mitchell in Saturday’s 69-59 home win over Duquesne. He scored 16 of his game-high 23 points in the final 9:16.
“The second half, I let the game come to me,” said Mitchell. “What the defense gives, I’m taking.”
The Billikens bounced back from a 73-71 loss to Xavier on Wednesday that stopped a season-high, six-game winning streak. Saint Louis blew a six-point halftime lead in that contest.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” coach Rick Majerus said. “These guys have great spirit and heart.”
Saint Louis has been boosted since Australian forward Cody Ellis became eligible for the start of conference play Jan. 9. Ellis is second on the team in scoring (12.0) and rebounding (5.2).
Temple has won three straight over Saint Louis since losing the teams’ first matchup in 2006. The Owls won 65-40 at home last season, limiting the Billikens to 29.8 percent shooting.