Monday, March 19, 2012

Lehigh Dazzles as Temple Seniors Go Out With a Whimper

After a relatively lackluster slate of games on Thursday, I was really looking forward to Friday night. Not only was Temple set to tip off at 9:50, but Lehigh was taking on Duke as a nice preamble. Little did I know that the team I had no expectations for would provide infinitely more excitement than the team I thought was destined for the Sweet 16.

I'm not going to lie, I didn't watch a single moment of Lehigh basketball this season until the Patriot League Conference Championship against Bucknell. In that game, I got acquainted with C.J. McCollum, easily the best player on the Mountain Hawks and far and away the best player on the court in that conference championship, but I honestly didn't know quite how good he was. Shame on me, having grown up not all that far from Lehigh's campus, having gone there several times in the summer for Eagles training camp, playing soccer tournaments there and even taking in a Lehigh-Lafayette match-up or two in my day. Still, all I knew was that C.J. McCollum looked impressive against his Patriotic League peers in the one game I watched him play. I certainly didn't think he'd be able to run rampant in the NCAA tournament, especially going up against 2-seed Duke in North Carolina as the 15-seed.

Then I watched and kept waiting for the Blue Devils to pull away. Not only did Duke roll out a bigger, deeper, much more talented lineup than Lehigh, but they were paying on a court the they had never once lost on in an NCAA tournament game. So I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for Duke to pull away. Even with Lehigh down just two at half and showing they weren't scared in the least, I felt like it was only a matter time before the Blue Devils asserted themselves and pulled away. But it never came.

Instead, the Mountain Hawks made every big play, hit every big shot, and most importantly had the best player on court. My questions about just how good C.J. McCollum was were answered emphatically, as the junior guard dominated on the way to a 30-point, 6-rebound, 6-assist, 2-steal night to lead Lehigh to the second 15 over 2 upset of the day. And I was cheering every bucket like my life depended on it.

McCollum did need 24 shots to net those 30 points, but with everything he did and all the confidence he exuded, he was unquestionably the best player on the court Friday night. That doesn't mean he's a better player than the likes of Austin Rivers or Seth Curry, necessarily, but he absolutely was on Friday night. And his performance led to one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament. It was Lehigh's first tourney victory ever, making history by beating Duke in North Carolina. Unbelievable. And while the Mountain Hawks couldn't sustain that last night and were ultimately bounced, it's a moment no one will ever forget.

On the flip side, Temple had one of the most forgettable NCAA tournament performances of all time.

We were warned to expect an ugly, slow, brutal basketball game prior to this one, but I'm not sure anyone was prepared to see what unfolded between South Florida and Temple.

In the first half, USF went nearly 16 minutes without hitting a field goal, missing 22 straight shots in the process. They scored just 15 points in the entire first half. And yet, Temple led by just four points at the midway point — and things only got worse from there.

As USF finally found its scoring touch in the second, the Owls only got worse, shooting a measly 35.7 percent from the field on the night and an atrocious 2-12 from beyond the arc. There is no doubt that South Florida's heralded defense played a huge role in that, but there was more at play here than that.

Ultimately, this loss falls at the feet of coach Fran Dunphy and his three senior leaders, Michael Eric, Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez. That trio of seniors, three of the most talented players on the team and the guys expected to lead Temple on a decent run, combined for 13 points, shooting a miserable 5-18 from the field. Eric was the most effective, netting 7 and hauling in 8 rebounds. Moore had just 5 points and couldn't beat anyone off the dribble. And Fernandez was quite literally invisible, only scoring 1 point while turning the ball over four times. It was a mockery of offensive basketball. And if it wasn't for Khalif Wyatt's 19 and Rhalir Hollis-Jefferson's 10 and 9, the embarrassing 58-44 loss would have been even uglier.

After a decent start, Temple quite literally could not do anything. Moore, adept at slashing to the rim and knocking down shots, couldn't shake his defender all night. Fernandez looked overmatched and lost out there, literally doing nothing to help Temple win. Eric was unspectacular. The offense was non-existent. And as I kept waiting for the Owls to change something, try anything, it was simply more of the same. Coach Fran Dunphy, who has done a wonderful job reviving the program after replacing the legendary John Chaney, just stood there and let it all happen.

Temple played right into South Florida's hands all game long. The Bulls have been an offensively challenged team all season, preferring to slug out low-scoring games and allowing their defense to win it. The Bulls want to play a slowdown game, milking the clock and limiting possessions. And that's exactly what happened on Friday night. Not once did the Owls try to pick up the pace and force the tempo, this despite fielding a team with several strong ball handlers and a group that can run the floor. Instead, Dunphy and the Owls continued to play at a deliberate pace, the pace USF wanted, and they died a slow death. This one is as much on Dunphy as it is on the underachieving seniors, who finished their college careers with an embarrassing whimper. I blame it on the absence of the mustache.

Honestly, it was the worst performance I've ever seen from a Temple squad in the NCAA tournament. It didn't hurt nearly as bad as Ty Shine, but it was far uglier. That wasn't basketball that Temple was playing on Friday night. It wasn't much of anything, to be honest with you.

Thank goodness Lehigh was there to provide something fun and entertaining, but just as The700Level warned, that was one ugly, slow, brutal basketball game for Temple, one that was even uglier, slower and more brutal than expected.

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