After a seven-year drought, Temple has earned an NCAA tournament berth in each of the past three seasons. It’s been nine years, though, since it experienced a win on college basketball’s biggest stage.
That could change in March. For now, the 22nd-ranked Owls will concentrate on being preseason favorites in the Atlantic 10 as they tip off Fran Dunphy’s fifth season on the sidelines Friday night against Seton Hall.
Temple (29-6) shared the A-10 regular-season title with Xavier but won the conference tournament, during which it didn’t have to go through the Musketeers to claim its third straight A-10 postseason title.
However, while Xavier’s success continued in the NCAA tournament - the Musketeers and Michigan State are the only programs to reach the round of 16 in each of the last three years - the Owls have come up empty with the spotlight on. After losing in 2008 and 2009 as double-digit seeds, fifth-seeded Temple lost to No. 12 Cornell in the first round in March.
“You can always go farther,” forward Lavoy Allen said.
Allen, a preseason all-conference pick, could be the key to the Owls earning their first tournament victory since 2001. He was the nation’s 11th-leading rebounder at 10.7 per game and averaged 11.5 points, making him the first Temple player to average a double-double since Ollie Johnson in 1970-71.
The 6-foot-9 Allen declared for the NBA draft before returning for his senior season.
“We need his play,” Dunphy said. “We need his understanding of the game. We need that consistency that he does bring to the table. … He’s a huge part of what it is we do.”
Junior Juan Fernandez - the MVP of the A-10 tournament - gives the Owls a backcourt complement to Allen. The Argentine led the league in 3-point percentage at 45.3 and averaged 12.6 points, but will shift from shooting guard to point guard with the graduation of starter Luis Guzman.
Guard Ramone Moore should give Temple another solid perimeter option. He averaged 16.1 points during a seven-game stretch in midseason in which he started five times, and he’ll now play alongside Fernandez with leading scorer Ryan Brooks (14.3 ppg) gone.
What seems unlikely to change is the Owls’ typically tough defense. Temple allowed the third-fewest points in the nation with 56.8 and was seventh in field-goal percentage defense at 38.3.
Dunphy is eager to see if his team can live up to the preseason hype that surrounded it.
“We’ll have our chance to respond to these expectations on Friday and see where we are,” Dunphy said.
The opener won’t be easy. Seton Hall (19-13) was picked to finish 11th in the Big East, but eight of the teams above it made the NCAA tournament last season.
There’s been change since the Pirates lost to Texas Tech in the first round of the NIT, but not as much as some thought. Kevin Willard was hired to replace fired coach Bobby Gonzalez, but guard Jeremy Hazell and big men Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson - all of whom had planned to enter the draft - opted to come back.
Guard Eniel Polynice transferred from Mississippi, while three young big men quickly committed once Willard - who spent the past three seasons coaching Iona - was hired.
“I think we are going to be the surprise team of the league,” said Hazell, the Big East’s leading returning scorer at 20.4 ppg. “It feels good because we are working hard on and off the court and we are getting everything together.”
Fernandez had 21 points to lead Temple to a 71-65 win at Seton Hall on Dec. 19. Hazell was held to 11 points on 4-of-17 shooting.