Temple's Khalif Wyatt is just the right person

Posted: March 26, 2013

DAYTON, Ohio - Sometimes, it falls to a single player to heal a program's reputation. In Temple's case, it fell to, of all people, Khalif Wyatt.

Temple entered this NCAA Tournament everyone's favorite loser, an annual disappointment just waiting to happen. The Owls made it to the Dance each of the last 5 years, but they won just one game.

Twice, they lost their opener as a No. 5 seed, to a 12 seed.

This time, propelled by Wyatt, of all people, they beat eighth-seeded North Carolina State on Friday in the East Regional, and they led top-seeded Indiana here Sunday until the final 79 seconds.

For 78 minutes of NCAA play they were no one's favorite loser; for 78 minutes, Wyatt was without peer.

Indiana won, yes, 78-72, but Indiana this season is the best team in the best conference.

So Temple led the best team in the best conference for 21 minutes, 39 seconds, until just over a minute remained. Indiana needed a couple of spurious calls and a killing three-pointer to push them to the Sweet 16.

Tom Crean, the Hoosiers' wild-eyed coach, told Wyatt in the handshake line, "You're the best player we faced this year."

That includes Otto Porter, of Georgetown, Trey Burke, of Michigan, Deshaun Thomas, of Ohio State. Khalif Wyatt, of all people, played better than them.

Wyatt, lightly recruited guard out of Norristown, now the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and, in Crean's estimation, the Hoosiers' best opponent.

Wyatt, an offensive supernova at a program built on defense; because, for Wyatt, defense is a fuzzy, theoretical concept.

Wyatt, weeping at midcourt for 3 full minutes; because, you see, Wyatt just never seemed to care that much.

Wyatt, a player coach Fran Dunphy benched for three games last season, then again during the Owls' regular-season game here against Dayton, for various indiscretions on and off the court.

Wyatt, of all people, played all but 2 minutes of this weekend's games and scored 31 points in each game, on 21-for-46 shooting. Perhaps five of those 46 shots came without at least one defender crowding him or touching him or fouling him. By the end of Sunday's game, Indiana was double-teaming him . . . when he didn't have the ball.

Why "of all people?"

Well, because only recently has Wyatt earned the right to carry the team. After 4 years of being late to meetings, late to practice, late to doctors' appointments; after four seasons of head-scratching plays and indifferent defense, Wyatt was a fine piece of marble that needed a deft and determined touch.

Dunphy this weekend called Wyatt "a pain in the butt" and "high maintenance," but he also called him "fearless" and basketball brilliant and, now, "low maintenance."

"He's had an unbelievable year, and an unbelievable career," Dunphy said. "He did a wonderful, wonderful job."

Right back atcha, big guy.

"Coming in here as a 17-year-old, you think you know everything. You think you have the answers to everything," Wyatt said. "Coach Dunphy helped me grow up a lot. He really was like a father to me for 4 years. He pretty much raised me from 17 to 22. I'm happy I had him in my life. Through everything, he's stuck with me. He had my best interests at heart."

Wyatt did not always believe that Dunphy believed in him.

"Not when I was 18. I thought he was just picking on me," Wyatt said. "At the time you think he's being unfair. You think, 'Maybe he doesn't like me.'

"As you grow up, you realize you have to be accountable for your mistakes. He made me a better man. He prepared me for the real world."

The real world, for Wyatt, will attend the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament next month, where NBA scouts will further dissect his worth.

By the time they see Wyatt in Virginia, they will have looked at some thrilling film.

After Indiana ran to a nine-point lead midway through the first half, Wyatt took over . . . as he did early against NC State on Friday; as he did to beat Syracuse and Virginia Commonwealth and La Salle.

Two free throws, a layup, a jumper, a steal, a three-pointer and another jumper and the score was tied.

Indiana sent All-America candidate Victor Olapido and reserves Remy Abell and Will Sheehey to bump and check and hand-check Wyatt. At times, he made each of them look foolish. Finally, during the last 10 minutes, Crean simply told Olapido to follow Wyatt everywhere.

That meant in the corner, where Wyatt simply stood; or at midcourt, 20 feet away from the ball. It looked ridiculous, but, hey, Wyatt had shot a 30-foot three-pointer in the first half. Anyway, it worked.

"They just all-out face-guarded me," Wyatt said. "It was real hard for me to get the ball."

Wyatt made a layup to start the second half, nailed a pair of jumpers midway through it and drained a three in front of a helpless Sheehey with 6:31 to play, but he hit only two free throws thereafter.

Enfeebled as he watched his teammates founder - Scootie Randall went 0-for-12 and Jake O'Brien was 0-for-5 in their final college game - Wyatt wept tears of frustration and loss on the court and in the locker room. So did Randall.

Anyone who knows the trials of Temple since Dunphy arrived seven seasons ago knows this: A loss to NC State or a blowout at the hands of Indiana, and those tears are much, much more bitter.

They were not, thanks to Khalif Wyatt.

Of all people.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

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