A bunch of wise, old Owls

YONG KIM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Coach Fran Dunphy says his is a 'low-maintenance' team.
YONG KIM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Coach Fran Dunphy says his is a 'low-maintenance' team.
Posted: March 15, 2013

IT HAPPENS in practice. It happens in games. Temple coach Fran Dunphy begins to instruct, recognizes whom he is speaking to, and stops midsentence. It has happened to T.J. DiLeo. It's happened to Khalif Wyatt, and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and of course, fifth-year man Scootie Randall.

"I've been here so long I know exactly what he's going to say before he says it," Randall was saying before practice this week. "I'll be like, 'I know, I got it.' "

He might not actually say this to his coach. It might be just with a look, or by immediately implementing what Dunphy was about to say. For Randall and three of Temple's four other senior starters, their extraordinarily long relationship with their coach - especially amid today's one-and-done college landscape - has created a sort of mind meld the coach is aware of, even if he doesn't take it for granted.

"We talk about it sometimes," Dunphy said. "You know, I'll point to the seniors and say, 'You know what? You're a short-timer now.' Back when I was in the military, you were a short-timer when you could count the days remaining. Well, sometimes there's a nervousness or a fear to that: This cocoon that I've been in is about to be burst.

" 'Now what do I do? Where do I go? What's going to become of my life?' I don't think that's happening to these guys."

It's quite the opposite. Sensing their time is short, Temple's seniors have provided the kind of down-the-stretch toughness and leadership that should make the Owls a tough out in their first game of the A-10 Tournament Friday night, and a tough out in the NCAA Tournament, as well.

Bouncing on and off the NCAA bubble just a few weeks ago because of some maddening inconsistency, the Owls have seemingly secured one of the 68 spots with a modest, seven-game winning streak down the stretch, including their gritty, season-ending victory over VCU on Sunday.

Temple fell behind by as many as 16 points early in that game, and won it by eight. It might be inaccurate to call it a signature win, given victories over Syracuse and Saint Louis, but Sunday's win does reflect the very essence of a team Dunphy has repeatedly referred to as "resilient."

"When you're doing it for a long time, you note different personalities that each team has," he said. "And this one, there was just a certain calm that you went into that huddle with. 'I think we're going to be all right.' We had taken their best shot."

That resiliency is directly connected to the story lines of several of their seniors. Randall, named the A-10's most improved player after a breakout 2010-11 junior season, missed all of 2011-12 with a torn meniscus. Jake O'Brien, the graduate student who transferred from Boston University, has battled through two surgeries on a balky left foot. Wyatt, the A-10 player of the year, had a rough start under Dunphy's tutelage, appearing in only 10 games as a freshman.

And T.J. DiLeo, also in his fifth year with the program, has overcome an ankle injury and the challenge of coming off the bench for all but a few games of his college career.

"He's a fifth-year senior who could care less about himself," Dunphy said. "He's the most selfless guy you're ever going to see. He's the best cheerleader for the guy who plays in front of him. That's the quality you look for in kids. And the other guys notice that, too."

This is the time of year when permanent damage can be done to the vocal cords of college coaches. Kentucky's John Calipari lost his voice about the same time he lost his team. Louisville's Rick Pitino has his perennial Big East laryngitis on. Michigan State's Tom Izzo sounds as if he's been smoking three packs a day since he was 16.

Dunphy has never been that kind of coach. He'd wince at this description, but his coaching peers often use words such as "cerebral," "tactical" and "teacher" in doling out praise.

That's in normal years. This year? Well, two of those seniors are pursuing the same master's-level degree their coach possesses. Five are over the age of 22. All five spoke of advising and encouraging younger members of the team at various junctures of the season.

"This team is on the low-maintenance end because of the number of seniors," Dunphy said. "And because they're used to my nonsense. They don't react much to it."

Or any adversity, for that matter.

"All season long, we would not play well against teams, yet we would find a way to win the game," Dunphy said. "I'm not sure how we won the Dayton game at Dayton. I'm not sure how we won the UMass game at UMass. But we found a way."

"I think we don't get flustered now much when we're down by a lot," DiLeo said. "Because we've been in so many of those games together. And we know a big lead like that can go away, too. Because we've seen that, too."


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: philly.com/

SamDonnellon

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