TUCSON, Ariz. (AP)—Temple has its roots firmly in the gritty tradition of Philadelphia basketball, not much flash but loads of defense and unselfishness. San Diego State has no tradition beyond all that gorgeous beach—and a handful of NCAA tournament defeats before this year.
But, boy, these Aztecs can play the game, preferably at a fast pace with lots of jaw-dropping dunks mixed in with defense, rebounding and some timely 3-point precision.
The meeting between seventh-seeded Temple (26-7) and No. 2 seed San Diego State (33-2) on Saturday in the third round of the NCAA Southeast Regional is a contrast in styles, a kind of matchup the Owls acknowledge they have not experienced.
“I would say they’re unique,” Temple guard Ramone Moore said. “I can’t remember any teams that we played, you know, similar to the style of play they like to play.”
Juan Fernandez, the star of the Owls’ 66-64 first-round thriller over Penn State on Thursday, knows patience will be a virtue, to be sure.
“We like to share the ball and try to find the open man, not just play through one guy,” he said. “We’re going to try to take what they give us. They’re long and athletic, so we are going to have to pass the ball around a lot.”
Both teams had reason for sighs of relief. Temple ended the record 11-game NCAA tournament losing streak of its coach, Fran Dunphy. San Diego State won a tournament game for the first time—period—by beating Northern Colorado 68-50.
The Aztecs can get on with reaching for much higher goals.
“Yeah, I feel like all the nerves are out, getting that win out of our system,” San Diego State’s Malcolm Thomas said.
If the Owls hold any advantage against the much bigger, more athletic Aztecs, it is in their backcourt size. Fernandez—whose sidestepping, 18-foot leaner off the wrong foot beat Penn State at the buzzer—stands 6-foot-4. So does Moore. Each scored 23 against Penn State.
By contrast, San Diego State’s D.J. Gay is 6-feet and Chase Tapley 6-2.
Fernandez said the Owls talked in practice Friday about taking advantage of their backcourt size.
“But we also know they’ve got a lot of good help defense because they’re long and athletic,” he said. “So it’s not going to be like we’re going to have one-on-one against just him (Gay). If we get it, we take it. But we’re going to have to be aware of our teammates because they help. We have to find the open man.”
For all the talk of the athleticism and size of the Aztecs, Dunphy credits their smallest player.
The Temple coach called Gay’s statistics “ridiculous.”
“His assist to turnovers are great. His personal fouls for the year—29. How can that be for all the minutes he played?” Dunphy said. “But to me what it says is he knows he’s got to play a lot of minutes, he is smarter than most of the guys that play the game, and he understands exactly what his role is.”
The Aztecs, cheered on by a big contingent of fans who took Interstate 8 east to Tucson, are tasting the big-time for the first time. Coach Steve Fisher, however, is not.
The Northern Colorado win had pressure because of the lack of past success mixed with this season’s high expectations.
Now, he said, “We’re going against a team that is every bit as good as we are that’s going to expect to win. And I don’t think that either side would say, `Boy, how could they win?’ or `How could they lose?”’
While the Owls have a talented inside player in LaVoy Allen, they have no one to challenge the sheer athleticism of Kawhi Leonard, who Fisher has called the best offensive rebounder he has ever coached. Adding to the Aztecs’ strength is the recent play of forward Billy White, who has reached double figures in five straight games.
No wonder Gay sounds so confident.
“Like I’ve said before, we’re a team that can win a variety of ways,” Gay said. “We can win inside and we can win outside. We have players that can knock down shots and we have a very good inside presence. We’re still going to try to attack inside. But we know that our bigs are very good passers.”
Dunphy said he expected forward Scootie Randall to give it another try. The junior played six minutes Thursday after missing seven games because of a stress fracture in his right foot.
Temple will need all the help it can get.
Then again, Dunphy and Fisher are old friends who have faced each other before. Dunphy recalled that he once took a Penn team to Michigan and knocked off Fisher’s Wolverines.
“He said that?” Fisher joked. “I think the referees cost us that game.”’