Temple and Fran Dunphy hope to make run in NCAAs

Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson dunks during a Temple practice at the University of Dayton Arena. The Owls are making their sixth straight tournament appearance . DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson dunks during a Temple practice at the University of Dayton Arena. The Owls are making their sixth straight tournament appearance . DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 23, 2013

DAYTON, Ohio - On Sunday, Fran Dunphy set the tone for his team's foray into the NCAA tournament. Moments after a roomful of fans and supporters roared approval at Temple's selection, Dunphy walked in and apologized.

The coach was talking specifically about the team's quarterfinal loss to Massachusetts in the Atlantic Ten tournament. But the theme has carried all the way to Dayton, where the Owls prepared for Friday's game against North Carolina State.

"I can't sit here today and tell you we have a fabulous NCAA record," Dunphy said. "You get more comfortable with your preparation. I wish that meant we were going to have guaranteed success."

Dunphy is well aware of the numbers. He has coached in 14 NCAA tournaments with Penn and Temple. His teams have won just two opening-round games.

The closer you look at the numbers, the less you can conclude from them. Nine of those trips were with Penn, which meant he coached his team to the Ivy League title and its automatic berth as a built-in 12 or 13 seed. It's pretty hard to criticize a man for winning his league most years.

The five previous trips with Temple can be judged more fairly. Dunphy hasn't gotten great breaks in terms of matchups. The loss that stings most came in 2010, when Dunphy had the opportunity to coach against the Ivy champion in the first round.

"We were a 5 [seed] against Cornell," Dunphy said. "They were no more a 12 than we were a 5. They beat us. They took it to us."

Temple's other losses were more or less predictable. That doesn't mean the program and its fans and, truth be told, Dunphy himself couldn't use a journey beyond the first weekend.

"Are we disappointed that we didn't do better?" Dunphy said. "Yeah, certainly. I think that's always the case. We're thrilled that we're here, but we have to do better."

It is just as true that it isn't really up to Dunphy whether this is the year that finally happens.

It is up to Khalif Wyatt, the Atlantic Ten player of the year. It is up to Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Scootie Randall. It is up to Jake O'Brien and T.J. DiLeo.

They are the five players facing their final opportunity to make a run in the NCAA tournament. Except for O'Brien, a graduate student who transferred from Boston University, they have played together a long time. They have been to the tournament enough times to get past the just-happy-to-be-here phase.

The selection committee didn't do them any favors. N.C. State represents a serious challenge, and Indiana would be the likely reward for a victory Friday. These are not games the Owls should win, not on paper. But they are games these Owls are capable of winning - if Wyatt plays like the A-10 player of the year and his teammates follow his lead.

"We've got a little chip on our shoulder this year," Wyatt said. "We want to prove that we belong here, that we can make a run at this thing."

There is no next time for this group. Dunphy has the Owls established as regular participants in this tournament. The coach will be back, with more chances to hit on that magic combination of right team, right matchups, and right time. But a loss means the end for Wyatt, Hollis-Jefferson, and the others.

"When you commit to Temple, you expect to go to the tournament every year," Wyatt said. "We just want to get further than just making the tournament. I think this group has an understanding. We got some older guys. Nothing really scares us or shocks us. That's a big advantage on these big stages.

"We feel like we have some guys who are really hungry and really want to succeed in this tournament. It's definitely a motivation: Friday could be the last game I play as a Temple Owl."

Wyatt has been one of the great players in the school's storied history. But nothing would elevate him to that elite level quite like a strong closing statement in the NCAA tournament. That would mean more than all the A-10 and Big Five and other regular-season games combined.

"He's a great basketball player," Dunphy said.

No matter what happens Friday, neither Wyatt nor his coach will have anything to apologize for. But when it comes to legacy building, a win would do wonders for both of them.

Phil Sheridan:

North Carolina St. vs. Temple

Friday at 1:40 p.m.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow

on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.

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