Khalif Wyatt almost always at center of Temple's success

DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Khalif Wyatt: 'I know my teammates are depending on me. I can handle that.'
DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Khalif Wyatt: 'I know my teammates are depending on me. I can handle that.'
Posted: March 20, 2013

KHALIF WYATT gives his basketball team a chance, almost every single game, against just about any opponent.

Because Temple's senior guard can blow up at any time.

So how many guys can say that? And the Norristown native does it in his own unique style.

"I don't know where we'd be without him," said forward Jake O'Brien, a graduate-student transfer from Boston University.

Well, probably not in the NCAA Tournament for the Owls' sixth consecutive appearance. The Owls, a No. 9 seed, will play eighth-seeded North Carolina State at 1:40 p.m. Friday at Dayton, Ohio.

The 6-4 Wyatt isn't exactly what you'd call speedy. He doesn't get too far off the ground when he goes up. And he'll never be mistaken for a lockdown defender. But he was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year - the 10th Owl to be so honored, and the first since Pepe Sanchez in 2000 - for a reason. He finds a way to get it done, to strap everyone else on his back, mostly in the biggest spots.

Wyatt is coming off a 4-for-19 performance in the Owls' quarterfinal loss to UMass in the conference tournament. But how many times has he had two bad games in a row?

He led the conference in scoring, at 19.8 points a game, and led his team in assists, averaging 4.1. He scored 33 just before Christmas as the Owls beat third-ranked Syracuse in New York. Two weeks later, he dropped 26 as they nearly won at No. 6 Kansas. In late January, when they trailed Penn by nine with 16 minutes left, he ignited a comeback by getting 16 of their next 18. On Feb. 9, he made the game-winning three-pointer in the waning seconds at Dayton, 7 days after he had 34 in a one-point loss at Saint Joseph's. On the last day of February, he got all 20 of his points in the second half of a close win over Detroit, including a dozen in the last 2 minutes. And in the regular-season finale against No. 21 VCU, he had 20 of his 30 after intermission as the Owls overcame a 16-point hole to win going away.

"The other guys feed off his abilities," coach Fran Dunphy said. "He allows us to compete at any level."

Opponents understand the reality, too. There's just not much they can do about it.

Sometimes, he'll strike from the arc. Or float in a running leaner in traffic from the lane. Yet he's just as likely to simply hip-check/bump his way to the foul line, where he's on the verge of breaking Hal Lear's 57-year school record for free throws made (189) in a season. Then again, maybe he'll just draw a double-team and get the ball to an open teammate.

The how part doesn't really matter. The bottom line is he usually beats you.

"He knows when it's prime time," said T.J. DiLeo, another fifth-year player who already has his degree and is working on a master's. "We can be struggling, and all of a sudden, he'll take over. He'll hit shots when people are all over him. He wants to take those shots. At the same time, he gets everyone involved. You see it a lot. Whenever they send a second person at him, he finds the open man.

"He could be selfish if he wanted to. But he's a great teammate."

Dunphy, of course, wouldn't have it any other way. He's had his share of tough-love moments with Wyatt, who hardly played as a freshman. It's all part of the process.

"I see it all the time, when you do what I do for a living," Dunphy said. "Coming in, they're not quite sure who they are. Now he has a much greater sense of all that, because of some of the trials and tribulations that he had to go through. That's typical of kids . . .

"He's got great leadership skills. The kids trust him, that they can give him the ball and something good will happen. They're never worried that he won't give it back to them. While he likes scoring, I think he likes making plays even more so. When your best playmaker is your best scorer, that doesn't always happen. But that's who he is. You want the ball in his hands, because he's going to make good decisions.

"You could see he had talent [at Norristown High]. You'd say, 'I don't know how he got that shot off' or 'I don't know how he read the defense that well' or 'There was a guy in his face and he still made it.' Things of that nature. He didn't get a lot of attention, but he had that something that a lot of athletes just don't."

Of course, it's also true that Wyatt would have you believe that he has never committed a foul, and that he's never made a move to the basket in which someone didn't foul him. He's nothing if not animated, almost to a fault. It seems as if he sometimes spends more time pleading his case with the officials than he does worrying about getting back down the floor. But it's all part of the package.

"I mean, coach Dunph is on me every day about just focusing on the game," acknowledged Wyatt, the A-10 Sixth Man of the Year in 2010-11. "When I'm out there, I get caught up in the moment. I'm not thinking about anything except trying to win, being competitive. That's just my nature coming out. When I'm talking to the refs, or whining, or anything like that, it's all me. I think sometimes I'm just trying to pick myself up, I don't know. Just being a competitor, I guess.

"I'm going to leave it all out there. I could shoot 0-for-20, it's not going to stop me from taking the next one. Or from making it. That's just the way I think. You want to play on the big stage. That's fun for me. You can't worry about failing. I know my teammates are depending on me. I can handle that. I don't want to let them down. Hey, coach Dunph never gave up on me. He stuck with me. He didn't have to. I owe him a lot."

That cuts both ways.

"I don't know if I've ever seen anybody with that kind of skill set," Dunphy said. "He can't jump that high, but he hangs in the air longer than most, or the appearance is it's longer than most. He can't run, though he has a level of quickness that I think is very good. He's a long kid, with great length to him. But he's so smart, he feels the game as good as anybody that I've ever had. He's an extraordinary talent. And he actually does have some defensive skill, like getting in the passing lane, those kind of things, that often get him in more trouble than I would like. It's not the most solid way to play defense. If he goes for a steal and misses, we're playing four-on-five. But he'll also step in there at the top of the key and it turns into an easy layup.

"It's not like he passes the eye test. But he has such body movement and control, just an innate sense for how to get shots off and draw contact. And while he's drawing contact, make the shot. He's probably had as many natural three-point plays, where he gets to the rim and gets fouled and finishes at the line, as maybe anyone in the country. And he probably should have 50 to 75 more assists. He creates many, many opportunites."

And if the Owls are going to do anything in the Madness, Wyatt figures to be right in the middle of it. You think maybe he wants to make his last Temple moments his most memorable?

"There's something in him that just lives for the biggest spots," O'Brien said. "We have a lot of talented guys on this team, but he's the one that makes us go."

By whatever means necessary.

"I try to use my basketball IQ to my advantage," Wyatt said. "I just want to make the right play as much as I can. I have the confidence that I can do it."

Comes from experience.

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