HARTFORD, Conn. – This isn’t the kind of uncharted waters you want to be in. Uncertainty is something humans hate more than anything else. For now, though, all Temple can do is wait and hope that they will be part of the field of 68. It’s something Fran Dunphy hasn’t had to do before.
Dunphy has had seasons where his team hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament. He’s a great coach, but he hasn’t been perfect. To this point in his career, he’s always known whether his team is in or out, though. While at Penn, his team was only going with a league championship, so he knew before Selection Sunday if he was in or out. At Temple, he’s won three conference championships, had other teams that were locks regardless and others that were definitely not making the Big Dance.
It was always easy. Now, not so much.
“There’s great angst, great angst,” said Dunphy. “I just said it to our guys, we’re in an unknown area that we’re not real familiar with, and we just kind of have to take a step back and see what this next 24 hours brings.”
Temple is 23-10 after losing to SMU on Saturday in the American Athletic Conference semifinals. They hang their hat largely on a blowout win over Kansas in December, as they had a tougher time picking up quality wins in conference play. They beat Cincinnati, but lost three times to SMU and twice to Tulsa, the latter a fellow bubble team. They beat UConn twice, but the Huskies are only in the field of 68 with a conference tournament championship on Sunday. The Owls beat Memphis twice, but the Tigers are nowhere near the bubble. And while their worst loss isn’t a terrible one – at Saint Joseph’s – the real question is if they did enough as far as wins go.
So you can understand why the Owls will be sweating it out until about 6 p.m. on Sunday.
“The hope is that we’ve done enough and that will be in someone else’s hands other than me,” said Dunphy. “We’ll get together tomorrow maybe and watch it together as a team, but really haven’t decided what to do yet.”
Temple got off to a good start on Saturday, building a ten-point lead less than nine minutes in. They played good defense for a lot of the first half, but their offense struggled all game long. They shot below 30 percent, with the key perimeter trio of Will Cummings, Jesse Morgan and Quinton DeCosey combining to go 9-32, including 4-16 from long range. Add in SMU’s 45-32 rebounding edge, including 11 offensive boards, and you get an idea of why the Owls weren’t going to win once SMU got going offensively in the second half.
The Owls’ NCAA Tournament hopes didn’t get any help a little later on Saturday. Wyoming, a team that almost certainly wouldn’t make it as an at-large, won the Mountain West Tournament over San Diego State, a team likely to still go. And if UConn, who later knocked off Tulsa in the other semifinal, wins in Hartford on Sunday, that will be one less bid that the Owls could conceivably snag.
You heard Dunphy use “hopefully” a few times in being asked about this. Obviously, he isn’t in the heads of the committee members, so it’s hard to know how good their case is in their eyes. As is always the case when coaches are asked, they can only speculate, and they’re not mind-readers. A win over SMU might have put them into the field, giving them one more quality win and getting them into the conference championship game. But now, it’s out of their control.
That’s not a good place to be. And in Dunphy’s 26th year as a college head coach, after 500 wins, he’s now experiencing that for the first time.