Rich Hofmann: Temple's Hollis-Jefferson fills multiple roles

Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson is happy to fulfill multiple roles for Temple.
Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson is happy to fulfill multiple roles for Temple. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: March 16, 2012

THE GREAT, WIDE, wonderful, unpredictable world that is the NCAA Tournament is opening again. It is a place, especially on the first couple of days, where rationality can take a holiday.

Sometimes it is nerves and sometimes it is a funky, unfamiliar visual background in the arena, but these are the early hours of the tournament when tested, trusted shooters can become clankers and coaches begin searching for scoring alternatives.

Sometimes, again, it is nerves and sometimes, again, it is a level of unfamiliarity with the teams, but these also are the games when officials - who are trying to impress people so that they can advance in the tournament, too - can blow the oddest, quickest, persnicketiest whistles, forcing coaches to juggle because of foul trouble.

It is the undeniable charm of the thing, this unpredictability. But under these conditions, especially as we get through the first weekend, the race does not always go to the swift but to the adaptable.

With that, meet Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson.

The stat sheet says the Temple forward averaged 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in about 34 minutes per game. The roster says he is a 6-6, 210-pound junior. But on an NCAA Tournament team where the three-guard offense gets most of the adulation, and comebacking big man Micheal Eric gets most of the speculation, Hollis-Jefferson seems very happy, thank you, to be doing whatever job needs doing on a particular day, and to be doing it under the radar.

"I think I have the everything-else role," he said the other day, with a quick laugh. "Whatever needs to be done, I have to do it. Or I have to try to do it."

He will shoot more if that is what the game calls for, or he will rebound more, or he will guard giants and sacrifice his offensive game. All of those things have happened this season, especially as Eric and his bum knee have been working their way back into the lineup.

What that will mean tonight when the Owls open their tournament against South Florida is anybody's guess. Just know this: Hollis-Jefferson has a coach who is expert at moving the pieces around the board, and Fran Dunphy is thrilled to have a piece that is so versatile.

"I think his role is critical - and the word I would use is 'critical' because he doesn't care about Rahlir," Dunphy said. "There's not a selfish piece to him. He does the dirty work defensively. He sets a lot of screens offensively. He comes up with timely baskets when you need him to. Tremendous guy. Great role player. There are times when we played, especially without Mike, that he was the biggest guy on the court, playing against 6-9 or 6-10 [opponents], and he doesn't think anything about it. He just goes in and does his best . . .

"Adaptability is a good word. I just think they understand the dynamic that's going on out there, that nothing is assured and they may need to do a lot of different things on the court - and he gets them done.

"He's a tremendous role player for us, if you can call a guy who played [nearly] 35 minutes a game a role player," he said. "Your role is to blend in with everyone else. Blending pieces - it's not easy. But he seems to accept it. He'll be a great success in life."

Team chemistry is a funny thing, and the success or failure of a particular mix can often come down to acceptance. And if you are going to play on a team with a point guard like Juan Fernandez handling the ball a lot, and scorers like Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt shooting the ball a lot, a player like Hollis-Jefferson either accepts the reality of the talent around him and works to fit in, or he fails.

His teammates know this, too.

"Rahlir is very important," Moore said. "Rahlir doesn't get the credit he deserves. He's a small guy who plays against a lot of big guys. He makes a lot of unsung plays that don't get seen in the box score. I think he's one of our most important guys.

"Rahlir, he's a quiet guy. He walks around and doesn't say too much. He just goes out and plays hard. Everybody on this team has a role, and they know it, and for us to be as good as we want to be, Rahlir needs to do the little things."

Tonight in Nashville, no one can be sure what those little things might be. But we all know the old John Chaney rant about the knowns and the unknowns, and how the unknown just kicked his butt. Which is not to say that Hollis-Jefferson is unknown, because he obviously is not.

It is just that the duty to which he might be called is unknown. And that at the start of every NCAA Tournament, there are role players like Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson who are thrust into the spotlight by unforeseen circumstances, and who don't blink.

"I really haven't looked at it like that," he said. "But it's a nice perspective."

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