Unexpected showdown: No. 1 KU at Temple

Fran Dunphy's Temple Owls have won seven straight games and are ranked 19th in the nation. AP Photo/Michael Perez

Stuck in Chicago on New Year’s Eve morning thanks to bad weather on the East Coast, Fran Dunphy said what every weary traveler says when faced with frustration: “There’s nothing we can do about it.’’

A month ago, basketball brains might have said the same thing about Dunphy’s Temple team as it prepped for a meeting with No. 1 Kansas.

Really, what could the unranked Owls do in the face of the juggernaut Jayhawks?

Now as KU and Temple ready to square off Saturday (ESPN2, 5:30 ET), the mood –- like the weather –- has lifted.

The Owls ended 2009 on a run of perfection, rolling up a 7-0 record in the month of December. Included in those wins were two eye-openers: A 75-65 victory over then-No.3 Villanova, followed by a six-point victory at previously unbeaten Seton Hall.

Suddenly the presumably overmatched Owls come to this showdown with some credibility of their own: an 11-2 record and a No. 19 ranking.

Of course getting the understated Dunphy to bite on that subject is more difficult than getting the man to shave his trademark mustache.

“We don’t think about what everyone else’s opinion is,’’ Dunphy said. “We appreciate it but we’re not going to focus on it.’’

When Dunphy took over at Temple plenty of people wondered if it was a good hire. He knew Philly certainly, and had more than proved his coaching chops in a storied career at Penn. But how could a guy who had never offered scholarships, who had spent his career selling an Ivy League education, convince kids to come to North Philly?

And how could a man so publicly reserved, though privately fiery, ever follow in the footsteps of the combustible John Chaney?

The answer? Apparently with ease.

Dunphy’s transition has been seamless. He has guided Temple to the NCAA tournament twice in his first three years, slowly reconfiguring the Owls into his style without sacrificing the blue-collar foundation the program long has been known for. You won’t find a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans or prima donnas on North Broad Street; what you will find is a bunch of kids who aren’t afraid of hard work.

Chaney’s trademark matchup zone may have been replaced by Dunphy’s man-to-man, but the results are still the sort the ex-coach would appreciate. Temple leads the nation in defense, allowing just 53.9 points per game and limiting opponents to 35.6 percent shooting from the floor. Western Michigan is the only team to hang 70 on the Owls.

“You’d be pretty foolish not to be pleased with how we’ve played this month,’’ Dunphy said. “We’ve been playing pretty well defensively and much better offensively. We’ll need all of that and more on Saturday.’’

Dunphy isn’t really interested in using this game as a barometer for his team. His is a team just entering the national conversation. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks have dominated the conversation.

Besides, Dunphy already knows the Owls are playing pretty well. Along with the defense, Argentine point guard Juan Fernandez appears to be coming into his own as a scorer and Ryan Brooks is averaging 20.5 ppg over his last four.

Still, this will be the first real signature game for Dunphy since coming to Temple. He has faced ranked opponents before and has beaten a few, notably the 16-point victory over No. 8 Tennessee last year. The Villanova win was big, but in the context of Philly, where Big 5 rivalries negate rankings, it goes down more as a knockout in a neighborhood brawl.

But the Owls have not faced a top-ranked team since Chaney’s final season, when Duke won at the Wachovia Center in February 2006. The No. 1 team in the country has visited the Temple campus just once, when John Calipari and UMass beat the Owls at McGonigle Hall in 1996.

Temple has upset No. 1 teams twice in program history: In 2000, Temple took out Cincinnati and in 1995 scored its first upset of a No. 1, winning in overtime at the Jimmy V Classic. The victim? Kansas.

“It’s a great opportunity for Temple, for Temple basketball and for these players,’’ Dunphy said. “This is why you play college basketball, for games like these.’’