College Basketball Nation: Luis Guzman

The A-10 runs through Philly

January, 20, 2010

The Atlantic 10 title will go through Philadelphia this year.

For the past three years, Xavier has had a stranglehold on the conference crown, racking up three regular-season titles and a Memphis-is-to-Conference USA like (well until tonight, that is) 43-9 record against A-10 foes since 2007.

[+] EnlargeRyan Brooks
AP Photo/H. Rumph JrTemple's Ryan Brooks scored 22 points against Xavier.
That the Musketeers have loosened that hold isn’t news. With the loss of three starters and head coach Sean Miller, this was supposed to be the year that X gave way to someone else.

Except that someone else was supposed to be the rivals right down the highway in Dayton.

Instead, in a poetic twist of irony, the league that ditched its headquarters in the City of Brotherly Love for better rent in the A-10-less city of Newport News, Va., now will have to watch from afar as the battle for its conference crown swims right down the Schuylkill.

By beating Xavier, 77-72 on Wednesday night, Temple claimed sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10, rolling to a 4-0 start in the league, and sent a clear message to its conference foes.

“Xavier has been the face of this league for a long time,’’ said senior Ryan Brooks. “We knew they’d come in here with a little swagger, and rightfully so, so we talked about it. It’s not taking the throne away from them so much as it is about winning an important game and moving in the right direction.’’

That direction is a decided projectile upward. The Owls have now won 12 of their past 13 – the lone hiccup to then top-ranked Kansas – and are off to their best start since 1993-94. When you consider the class of programs that have come down North Broad Street in the past 15 years and the fact that this particular Temple team was picked to finish no better than fifth after losing Dionte Christmas, the hot start is all the more remarkable.

Even more stunning is how Temple is winning. The program that long looked at the offensive end of the floor as a rest stop under John Chaney can actually score. The Owls still like to defend under Fran Dunphy – the 72 points scored by Xavier is only the second time this season a team topped 70 against Temple – but they have an offense that can be downright pretty when it’s going well. It went exceedingly well against Xavier. The Owls shot a blistering 59 percent against Xavier, missing a grand total of six field goals in the second half.

There are no smoke and mirrors here. Temple relies almost exclusively on four guys – Brooks averages 37 minutes a game; Lavoy Allen and Juan Fernandez 34 and Luis Guzman 31 – but all four of those guys can score.

Allen and Guzman got it started, scoring seven and nine in the first half. Brooks took over midway, rattling off six by himself at one point. And Fernandez finished it off, scoring 13 of his 15 in the second half, including draining a shot that Xavier coach Chris Mack called ‘ill advised’ to seal the victory.

Brooks had another term for Fernandez shot -- a deep 3, barely seconds in on the shot clock with Temple clinging to a three-point lead and 43 seconds left on the clock:

“Dunph said that shot took a lot of (rhymes with walls),’’ he laughed.

Dunphy only slightly corrected Brooks’ assessment.

“He’s got a burglar’s guts,’’ the coach said of Fernandez. “I would like to tell you I have control, but there are times I do not and that was one of those times. When it went down, you’re cheering like crazy, but if it didn’t you want to go out there and choke him.’’

But there is no choke in this Temple team. Despite twice leaving Brad Redford open for wide-open looks and resuscitating the Musketeers’ hopes in the waning seconds, the Owls survived thanks to Brooks’ perfect 6-for-6 from the line.

The league battle is hardly over. Temple, Xavier, Dayton, Rhode Island, Richmond and maybe even Charlotte all could win the title, but things break nicely for the Owls down the stretch. Thanks to the unbalanced league schedule, Temple will not go to Xavier or Dayton and already won at Rhode Island.

And unlike previous years where they had to make hay in the conference tourney to make the dance, the Owls should, barring a meltdown of epic proportions, be in the NCAA tournament.

“We want to keep surprising people,’’ Brooks said. “That’s what motivates us. We’ve been the underdogs for a couple of years now and we like that role.’’

Too bad, Ryan.

The A-10 title may be taking a new route this year.

Through Philly.

A surprise everywhere but Philly

December, 13, 2009
In most zip codes across the country, Temple's 75-65 win over No. 3 Villanova will raise eyebrows and cause some head scratching. After all, the Owls this season had been beaten by St. John's and Georgetown, two Big East teams not considered nearly as talented as the Wildcats.

In Philadelphia, the final score will be met with a knowing nod, with old and young fans alike smiling as they say, "That's the Big 5 for you." The tradition-laden city series may not offer streamers at the first made bucket or doubleheaders at the Palestra any more, but it's still good for some unexpected drama.

Since taking over at Villanova, Jay Wright has played Big 5 games with equal parts honor and trepidation. He is a child of the Big 5, a kid who grew up a quick ride from the city and spent more than a few nights on the Palestra bleachers enjoying the tradition. That part of him loves it.

But as the head coach of a team that always has more to lose than gain -- in national perception and RPI standing, at least -- these games are nothing shy of a nightmare. Weird things happen in Big 5 games -- teams that aren't supposed to have a chance play out of their minds (see Saint Joseph's against Villanova last week) and teams schooled by national battles lose their composure (see the 14-point lead the Wildcats blew against the Owls on Sunday).

So when the Wildcats brought a No. 3 ranking and a stranglehold on the Big 5 -- Villanova had won 21 of 22 in the city series prior to Sunday -- it meant exactly nothing in North Philly. Scratch that.

It meant that the Owls had even more reason to want to pull off the upset.

The irony, of course, is the Wildcats were undone by a kid who couldn't possibly understand the magnitude of the Big 5. Juan Fernandez came to Temple last December, following in the footsteps of his Argentinean hero Pepe Sanchez to enroll there. The Big 5? When I sat down with him this summer for a story, he was still trying to get his arms around the bright lights and show that is American college basketball, his studies and the English language.He told me while he's comfortable speaking in English, he still thinks in Spanish.

But the kid labeled "Pepe Sanchez with a jump shot" just played his way into Big 5 lore. He scorched Villanova for 33 points -- more than doubling his previous career-high of 16 -- and drained 7 of 10 3-pointers.

Ultimately this loss won't kill Villanova. The Wildcats will play plenty of big games between now and Selection Sunday and have more than ample opportunity to restore their place in the national pecking order.

It could, however, seriously help Temple. This was the sort of breakout game fans on North Broad Street have been waiting for from Fernandez. A dizzying playmaker, he is solid compliments in Ryan Brooks and Lavoy Allen but the Owls need his scoring. The starting backcourt of Luis Guzman and Ramone Moore haven't been point-producers so far.

More, Temple is now 8-2 with a signature win to bolster its resume and boost its confidence.

And frankly, the Owls will need it. Next up is a much-improved and undefeated Seton Hall game and around the corner is a Jan. 2 date with Kansas.