With Temple’s Road Win at St. Louis, A-10 Race Even Murkier Than BeforePosted by dnspewak on January 12th, 2012
Danny Spewak is an RTC correspondent. You can follow him @dspewak on Twitter. He filed this report following Temple’s victory at Saint Louis on Wednesday.
Saint Louis looked nothing like one of the Atlantic 10′s top defensive teams on Wednesday. Exploiting a mismatch with its four-guard attack, Temple overcame a sluggish effort from senior point guard Juan Fernandez to knock off the Billikens 72-67 at Chaifetz Arena, avoiding an 0-2 start and leaving the A-10 standings as messy as ever. SLU (13-4, 1-2 A-10) could not handle the physicality of the Owls’ guards, especially Khalif Wyatt. The junior led all scorers with 22 points, and his team shredded Rick Majerus‘ man-to-man defense all night to score 44 points in the paint. Temple (11-4, 1-1 A-10) shot 59% in the second half and 56.6% overall, marking just the second time this season Saint Louis could not hold an opponent to less than 50% shooting. And it all happened without normal production from Fernandez, who scored just two points on a 1-8 effort from the field.
The Billikens never led in the second half, though they did cut Temple’s lead to a single point on two occasions. Even with an animated home crowd behind it — the 8,760 fans marked its second-highest attendance of the season — Saint Louis could not get the defensive stop it needed in the final two minutes. After Kwamain Mitchell‘s three-pointer pulled SLU to within 62-61 with 2:14 remaining, Aaron Brown immediately responded with a three-point play. Then, a turnover led to a thunderous alley-oop in transition by Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, sealing the Billikens’ first home loss of the season. “You have to buck up and gets stops,” senior forward Brian Conklin said. “And we’re not doing that right now.”
Though his team statistically turned in its worst defensive effort of the season, Majerus actually seemed more concerned about his team’s lack of offensive execution in the game’s final minutes. SLU missed countless putbacks despite grabbing 15 offensive rebounds, and Majerus called out sophomore Mike McCall for committing two critical turnovers. It’s not as if Majerus was happy with his team’s defense, though. He said forward Dwayne Evans in particular had trouble matching up with the Owls’ guards since he normally defends on the block. With such an athletic advantage, Temple got to the paint at will and knocked down threes (5-for-7) when it needed to. “We had bad mismatch problems. I’d rather always play small than big,” Majerus said. “[Temple just had] more veteran and tougher, more physical guards. We had known that, that [Temple] was capable of it. They just saw the mismatch and did a good job.”
With only two points,Fernandez did not take advantage of his mismatch but he set up his teammates with four assists in 29 minutes of action. Still, Temple coach Fran Dunphy sat the senior for the latter part of the first half after he missed his first four field goal attempts, and Fernandez also suffered a second-half injury. A trainer examined his right knee on the bench, but Fernandez missed only a few minutes and re-entered the game with a knee brace.
WHAT IT MEANS IN THE A-10
Thanks to Xavier’s recent freefall, the Atlantic 10 suddenly looks like a wide-open race in 2012. Right now, only La Salle remains undefeated at 2-0. Besides winless Rhode Island and Fordham, a number of teams could compete for a league title — including Temple and Saint Louis.
The Musketeers can still recover from their mid-season swoon and win the A-10, but they are now just one contender among many. The Owls proved Wednesday night they can keep their composure in front of a near-sellout crowd, and there may not be a better backcourt in this conference. As long as Fernandez avoids these kinds of off nights and keeps distributing the ball, Wyatt and Ramone Moore are more than capable of carrying the scoring load. Temple isn’t very deep — Dunphy, for instance, did not make a substitution for the first 10 minutes of the game on Wednesday. But it has quickness, experience, outside shooters and a terrific head coach. And frankly, despite the loss, most of those terms also apply to SLU. During its 12-1 start and stint in the Top 25, the Billikens dominated opponents by knocking down threes and defending their tails off. With Majerus at the helm, there’s no reason Saint Louis can’t get back to those fundamentals at some point this season. “It’s stuff we can correct. That’s the frustrating part,” Conklin said. “It’s stuff we’ve talked about after every loss so far… something’s going to have to change real soon, definitely in practice.”
If something really does change, then look out, A-10. And as for the other contenders, it’s hard to name all of them in one article. Archie Miller‘s Dayton team has defeated both SLU and Temple already, for example. St. Joseph‘s, Massachusetts and Charlotte are all improved, and St. Bonaventure can ride star Andrew Nicholson to almost any victory. Just ask the Flyers, who lost 81-73 last night because Nicholson scored 30 points. Oh, and remember that La Salle is in first place, and remember to never doubt Chris Mooney at Richmond. By my count, I’ve listed 10 teams with at least a somewhat realistic possibility of winning this conference. “Every game counts as one-sixteenth right now of the conference season. And this was one of those one-sixteenths that we let slip away. Another one’s coming up on Saturday,” Conklin said.
With the way this wild league is shaping up, Conklin likely won’t be the only A-10 player this season to make a comment like that.