HARTFORD, Conn. – The Temple men’s basketball team rarely played great defense over the course of the 2016-17 campaign. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the Owls allowed East Carolina to shoot 51 percent from the floor in an 80-69 loss to the Pirates in the opening round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Thursday afternoon at XL Center.
But the most alarming aspect of the result, which ended Temple’s season at 16-16, is the fact that ECU’s young players looked so much better than Coach Fran Dunphy’s kids.
Temple’s youth was undeniably a major factor in the season going sideways, and often backwards, after a solid start. The AAC had answers for freshman guards Quinton Rose and Alani Moore. And even though sophomore guard Shizz Alston replaced the scoring and assist numbers of injured senior Josh Brown, nobody replaced Brown’s defense or leadership. And the puppies in the pivot, Damion Moore and Ernest Aflakpui, still have a ways to go.
So the responsibility for carrying the team fell on veterans Daniel Dingle and Obi Enechionyia. And it’s easy to point to Enechionyia’s midseason downturn as the reason the Owls lost 11 of their first 16 AAC games. But a funny thing – a scary thing, really – happened as Enechionyia boosted his output in the last five games of the season.
The Owls didn’t look any better.
Enechionyia scored 20 points in Thursday’s loss to the Pirates – his first 20-point game since November. But his overall numbers (20 points, 3 rebounds) paled in comparison to ECU swingman Kentrell Barkley, who totaled 26 points, 16 rebounds, and three assists – looking like another guy named Barkley who’s in the Hall of Fame.
Barkley, a sophomore, was defended for most of the game by Enechionyia or Dingle, who finished with 10 points and three rebounds.
Rose (13 points, 9 rebounds) and Alston (11 points, five assists) were also productive for the Owls. But again, they were outplayed by their counterparts on ECU – freshman shooting guard Elijah Hughes scored 17 points and freshman point guard Jeremy Sheppard had seven points and four assists.
Temple actually did a decent job against ECU’s top three-point shooter, Caleb White, who finished with 11 points. And backup guard B.J. Tyson was a non-factor.
But ECU had more answers, particularly from senior big guys Michael Nzege (7 points, 6 rebounds) and Andre Washington (6 points, 3 rebounds, 2 blocked shots).
So maybe that was the biggest difference between the two teams – ECU’s interior veterans against Moore (6 points, 4 rebounds) and Aflakpui (3 points, 3 rebounds). And not just the comparative production of the bigs, but also their defensive presence and the resulting team field goal percentages. Temple shot 38 percent from the floor.
The Pirates got more shots at the rim and outscored the Owls in the paint (30-24). And even though Temple had a 16-10 advantage in offensive rebounds, it was ECU that turned those opportunities into a 15-9 edge in second chance points.
So will the young Owls get better?
Sure they will.
But Barkley is going to get better, too. And so will Hughes and Sheppard. And fellow freshman Deng Riak, a 6-10 freshman, is essentially ECU’s version of Aflakpui.
Do Rose, Alston, Damion Moore, and Alani Moore have more upside than their ECU counterparts? No doubt.
But the Pirates were better on Thursday. They got 56 points from their non-seniors. Guess how many points Dunphy got from his non-seniors? 56.
And that’s not a big deal, except for the fact that ECU has never won an NCAA Tournament game, and has been to the NCAAs just once in the past 45 years. Four years ago, ECU won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, the CIT, a mid-major-only tournament.
To be fair, ECU and Temple are in the same conference now. That alone is going to help ECU close the recruiting gap. But ECU finished in ninth place this year.
Injuries and youth explain Temple’s slippage this season. But they don’t explain why ECU’s youth looked so much better than Temple’s youth on Thursday. For the Owls to climb back to the top of the AAC, they need more than youth development. Every team has young guys who will get better.
Paging Josh Brown.