Owls' need Christmas to heat house

Posted: March 20, 2009

MIAMI - When the Temple Owls took the floor for practice yesterday at the AmericanAirlines Arena, Dionte Christmas knew exactly where he was.

He might not have known which way the beach was (that would be east), or where the nearest palm tree was (right outside Gate 4), but he knew what happened at the courtside table just a few games ago.

"This is right where he did it," Christmas said, walking up to the spot. "He got up here and said, 'This is my house.' If I ever won the game, that's what I'm going to do."

Temple would like nothing better than for Christmas to emulate Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, who dropped a neat 48 points on the Chicago Bulls on March 9, ending that performance when he stole the ball from John Salmons and drained a game-winning three-pointer at the end of overtime.

Even for Wade, it wasn't a bad night, and he jumped up on the table - right in front of Heat owner Micky Arison - and screamed to the crowd, "This is my house. This is my house." Arison, who could have, didn't argue the point.

Eight NCAA teams will be in the house today, any of which would love to claim ownership of the place for the weekend. Judging by the seedings, No. 11 Temple has only an outside shot to be the surviving pea from the South Regional pod, one of two teams that will leave tree-lined Biscayne Boulevard with their destiny still in their palms.

But with Christmas on the court, that's exactly what the Owls have - an outside shot.

This is the time of year when teams need defense, and they need luck, and they need all the statistical biorhythms to reach a peak for the NCAA tournament. They also need the guy who can lower the odds against you just by rising off the floor.

Christmas is that type of player. He is streaky and has suffered through bad games recently, but his shot is silkily pure, and he doesn't need much of an opening to launch it.

If Temple is to make any noise in the tournament - which would mean winning twice as an underdog here - it will be Christmas who starts and finishes the racket. Perhaps it isn't likely he will end up on the courtside table Sunday afternoon, claiming some floor space in Wade's house, but at least he knows how it's done.

"He's amazing to watch on tape," said Herb Sendek, coach of sixth-seeded Arizona State, Temple's first-round opponent. "He makes shots that, quite frankly, seem indefensible. Defenders are draped on him, hand up, nose-to-nose, and somehow he creates a little bit of space and the ball is up and in."

Arizona State plays a match-up zone that has been compared, in concept if not notoriety, to the version employed by John Chaney at Temple all those years.

"It's very similar," Christmas said. "I think it's going to be tough to get shots against that defense."

With Christmas, it isn't so much about the defense as it is about him. He went through a recent two-game stretch in which he shot a combined 4 for 25, then followed that with a pretty good game against Xavier in the Atlantic Ten semifinals and a great one against Dusquesne in the final. He scored 29 points in that one, making 7 of 16 three-point shots.

"He's had an interesting year," coach Fran Dunphy said. "I think he's made more big shots this year for us, but he hasn't shot the best percentage. We've become so spoiled watching him play that we think that every time he shoots, it's going to go in the basket."

Getting to the second weekend of the tournament will mean getting past Arizona State and then, probably, Syracuse. It will take a lot more than Christmas. The Owls will have to get scoring from Lavoy Allen and Sergio Olmos on the inside, from Ryan Brooks and Semaj Inge on the perimeter with Christmas, and they'll have to find a way today to defend James Harden of ASU.

If Christmas is the usual answer for Temple, Harden is the man for the Sun Devils. He's a physical, 6-foot-5 sophomore guard often compared to Paul Pierce, which isn't a bad comparison. Harden is just 19, but there's nothing immature about the lefthander's game. He probably wouldn't mind jumping up on the table Sunday afternoon, either.

Any of the teams here would settle for surviving until next weekend. Taking ownership of the building isn't necessary. Christmas is probably too nice a guy to claim that spot even if the game turns out that way for him. But he'd love to get the opportunity to decide.

"I don't think we're going to win a lot of big games if Dionte doesn't have a great game," Olmos said. "I've been playing basketball for a long time now, played with a lot of great guys, played against a lot of great guys, but as far as shooting the basketball, Dionte has to be up there with the best. . . . I think he's one of the greatest in the country."

This weekend, he'd settle for being the best in the house.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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