Temple Beats Syracuse and Shows Signs Of A-10 Dominance

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 22nd, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC Correspondent. He was at Madison Square Garden for Temple’s 83-79 victory over Syracuse. You can follow him @ChrisDJohnsonn

If Jim Boeheim’s 900th career victory was a nervous frenzy, the next game was a stroke of unfamiliarity. Over 50 times Syracuse played a non-conference game, and over 50 times Syracuse won. On Saturday, the Orange met their match in soon-to-be Big East member Temple. It was an upset insofar as Syracuse’s No. 3 ranking denotes national standing, and Temple’s unranked status confers inferiority. More shocking was the fact that Temple was itself upended by Canisius at home just three days prior.

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The Owls rebounded from a humbling home loss to upset the undefeated Orange, thanks in large part to Khalif Wyatt’s 33 points. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

The odds were stacked high against Fran Dunphy’s Owls – not just in the broader historical context of Syracuse’s non-conference success (not to mention its overwhelming home court advantage in the building ‘Cuse fans deem “The Other Carrier Dome”), but also in relation to the event that directly preceded Saturday’s upset. As unsettling and eyebrow-raising as Wednesday’s home loss was, Temple needed that wake-up call to knock off the then-No. 3 Orange. “I don’t know if we would have won today if we didn’t lose Wednesday,” Dunphy said. “Wednesday catapulted us into today. We needed to learn a lesson.”

Lesson learned. Temple picked apart Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone with precise high-post flares, efficient floor spacing, and timely shooting. It was a textbook takedown of one of the best zone defenses in college basketball. And none of it would have been possible without the steady efforts of senior Khalif Wyatt. In the Canisius loss, Wyatt finished 6-of-16 from the field for 17 points, including 0-of-6 from three. Three days later, the senior had the game of his life, literally and figuratively. The box score paints a flattering statistical portrait: 33 points, 8-of-17 from the field, 15-of-15 from the free throw line. But to fully appreciate Wyatt’s performance, one must indulge in visual description.

The best way to convey Wyatt’s unconventional offensive game is to dissect it in pejorative terms. His shot selection was, in short, awful. Time and again, the senior guard would hoist up ill-advised shots, frequently drawing fouls in the process. There were times when his tactics would fail miserably, to the point where Temple’s passionate student section could do nothing but cringe in dismay. On other occasions, Wyatt’s mystifying array of off-balance runners, leaning hook shots and high-arching floaters would inexplicably loop their way through the basket. On Saturday, that delicate dichotomy favored the good side of Wyatt’s game. “Khalif took the challenge saying to himself that he did not play well his last timeout,” Dunphy said. “He made some really good plays when we were struggling to score and stay in the game.”

Not to be overlooked, sophomore forward Anthony Lee finished with a career-high 21 points and was a constant in disrupting Syracuse’s low-post chemistry. The depth and talent along the Orange’s front line is no secret. From James Southerland to Rakeem Christmas to Baye Keita to DaJuan Coleman, getting clean looks down on the low block is a daunting endeavor. Lee met that challenge head on, and while he contributed only five field goals, his free-throw shooting (11-of-14) rendered Syracuse’s physical defense counterproductive.

Knowing where to gauge Temple in the larger frame of A-10 contenders remains something of a mystery. Two weeks ago, the Owls played a similar neutral-site non-conference game against a national power — Duke blitzed the Owls at the IZOD Center. For many, the verdict on Temple’s season prospectus was clear — the Owls were an overrated team sandwiched amongst a handful of good but not great teams in a much-improved league. The Canisius loss only confirmed that skepticism. What are we to make of Temple after a well-choreographed toppling of the No. 3 Orange? I can’t say. Simply ignoring the nationally-televised beatdown at the hands of Duke or Wednesday’s loss to Caniusius does not account for the very real possibility that Saturday’s win is not Temple’s long-term on-court product. Nor is Dunphy willing to grant added significance to one non-conference result. “The win is tremendous, but we’ve been here before.” He said. “We’ve got a big league schedule coming up. And before that we’ve got three non-league games that are really important. Every game is so critical in your development.”

The feelings on the Orange sideline are unquestionably different than the culminating celebration that stole the national spotlight Monday night. Boeheim remains stuck on his historic breakpoint (900 wins), if only for a moment. The Orange, after one week off, gets consecutive cupcake games against Alcorn State and Connecticut State before entering Big East play. Temple’s winning formula struck at the heart of Syracuse’s biggest strength: the 2-3 zone. Even so, it would be an injustice not to consider the Orange’s woeful free-throw shooting (19-of-34) and their meager long-range success rate (2-of-12). Temple deserved to win, but Syracuse certainly didn’t help itself avoid an upset. “That is not a way to win tough games if you are not going to shoot the ball better from the free throw line,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. Free-throw shooting was certainly at fault, but against most teams, charity stripe inefficiency is a minor hindrance for the No. 3 squad in the country.

This was more about Temple’s excellent strategic game plan, about the way Dunphy picked apart a defense that’s overwhelmed 10 different teams this season, and countless others throughout Boeheim’s 37-year career. An upcoming six-day break gives Temple a chance to reflect on what could go down as a season-defining win. Or it could sap any and all momentum the Owls built up in the emotional triumph. “I wish it was worth more than one victory,” Dunphy said. “It means a great couple days for us.” The real answer will have to wait until after the holiday festivities.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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