PHILADELPHIA – Forget Ohio.
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.
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.