Anyone whose first glimpse of Temple this season came in Wednesday night's impressive 78-73 win over third-ranked Duke probably now believes the Owls are one of the nation's most formidable teams.
That may eventually be the case once Temple hits its stride, but the truth is the Owls had provided little reason to see this upset coming.
They lost to woeful Bowling Green in late-November. They were lucky to survive Buffalo and Delaware last week. And while victories over Missouri Valley contender Wichita State and slumping city rival Villanova were solid, they have clearly missed the interior defensive presence of former center Lavoy Allen, especially with top big man Micheal Eric still sidelined by a broken patella.
All of those early-season struggles vanished at least for one night as Temple out-played a Duke team whose only previous loss was to Ohio State and served notice that it will be a factor in the Atlantic 10 once again. In fact, considering that Eric is scheduled to return later this month and that Xavier is mired in a stunning post-brawl slump, the Owls might have to assume the role of favorites entering the start of conference play.
They certainly are capable of winning the league if they show the same toughness they did against Duke and continue to control the tempo, play patient, efficient offense and sprinkle in timely defensive stops.
What won Wednesday night's game for Temple was its ability to exploit Duke's perimeter defense, a season-long issue for the Blue Devils. Khalif Wyatt, Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez combined for 37 points and 13 assists largely by taking advantage of Duke off the dribble and either scoring at the rim or kicking out to an open spot-up shooter.
The advantage Temple had off the dribble on the perimeter wasn't a huge surprise, but the Owls effectiveness on defense was more eye-opening.
Although the Plumlee brothers enjoyed success against the undersized Temple frontcourt on lobs and on the offensive glass, the Duke guards once again struggled to free themselves for open looks on the perimeter. The Owls guarded the three-point line and forced the Blue Devils to drive, something none of them are comfortable doing besides Austin Rivers.
The result of that defensive strategy exposed a weakness of Duke's offense once again: It lacks a facilitator capable of getting in the lane and setting up teammates for open shots. Rivers is a dynamic scorer but he has not learned to distribute off t he dribble effectively. Fellow freshman Quinn Cook has shown progress in recent weeks, but he was a non-factor against Temple. And the result was that spot-up shooters Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly combined for eight points on 3-for-10 shooting.
What will be interesting to see going forward is if Duke can solve these problems in ACC play and if Temple can build off this success. They'll both have to if either program is going to win their respective conferences and make a deep run in March.