NCAA Tournament: Next stop, Dayton. Temple will take it, now that they can breathe. | Mike Jensen
What were Fran Dunphy’s nerves like all weekend? “The angst is overpowering, to be honest with you. It’s a hard day.”
The shot hung in the air -- for two days. Would it spin in? Or, would this Temple Owls season clank against the rim? After Temple’s quick exit Friday night from the American Athletic Conference Tournament, there was no answering those questions, only conjecture before the March Madness bracket was unveiled.
Sunday, the suspense ended almost immediately. The fifth game announced Sunday evening on CBS, a Dayton play-in game between 11 seeds -- Temple and Belmont. The Owls were one of the last four teams in — officially, the third-to-last at-large selected — which meant that ball had been rolling around the rim all weekend.
“It was kind of tough downstairs, holding my breath for awhile,” Owls star Shizz Alston said later of the anticipation.
What were Fran Dunphy’s nerves like all weekend?
“Uhhh — I had a big bear on my chest," Temple’s coach said. “The angst is overpowering, to be honest with you. It’s a hard day.”
When you know you’re in, “it’s the greatest day ever,” he said, "When you know you’re out, and you have no chance, it’s the worst day ever. Somewhere in between, probably on the worse side, is when you’re unsure what’s happening.”
This was their third time in recent seasons that the Owls were in the unsure category, Dunphy pointed out. “We didn’t make it in ’15 — we thought we had done enough. We made it in ’16, but there was some angst there.”
As it turned out, the Owls had every reason to worry about the “bid steals,” including whether Wichita or Memphis would grab the automatic AAC bid. That didn’t happen. On Saturday, Buffalo held its ground in the Mid-American, and Utah State in the Mountain West. The only Saturday “bid steal” was Oregon in the Pac-12.
For the players, the relief of hearing the bid quickly was great, they said. Playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time? Owls guard Nate Pierre-Louis called the whole thing a blessing for “the seniors, Coach Dunph, and the city of Philadelphia.” Could he compare the feeling to anything? “Uh, no,” Pierre-Louis said. “My little sister being born, probably.”
The staff veterans didn’t breathe any easier. Dave Duke, assistant coach for player development, has been with Dunphy for 13 years at Temple, and eight at Penn before that, and was head coach and assistant at Lehigh before that. This will be his 15th NCAA Tournament at those three stops.
» READ MORE: Charting Fran Dunphy’s NCAA Tournament success
“It’s tough [being] on the bubble all year,” Duke said. “It’s a lot of pressure on these kids. You’re at UConn. You’ve got to beat Tulane. UCF, a big opponent.”
You became an amateur bracketologist, Duke added. "You don’t talk about it a whole lot. You don’t say, ‘You watching any bubble teams tonight?’ "
But, yes, they were all watching the potential of the bubble shrinking all weekend. Would San Diego State knock off Utah State in the Mountain West and steal a bid?
"San Diego State played great," Duke said. “Bowling Green and Buffalo, great game.”
No bids were stolen during the day on Saturday, but Oregon grabbed one late at night, beating Washington in the Pac-12 final.
“I stayed up, oh yeah," Duke said. “I hate to root against teams. But I’m rooting for us.”
There was a question that popped up a lot: Could there be any unspoken generosity toward Dunphy in his last go-round. Let’s get Fran in? Committee members wouldn’t even have to say it out loud to the person next to them when voting.
A few weeks back, the subject was brought up to someone who pays strict attention to all this. (His name might rhyme with Do Card Me.) Was there any chance for such sentimentality creeping in, or zero percent? In his firm opinion, zero percent.
If you look at the makeup of the selection committee, you can see why. Does the commissioner of the Southland Conference or the athletic director at North Carolina-Asheville know Fran Dunphy? That’s the makeup of the committee. If it was all coaches, sure — Dunphy would probably be a 2-seed. Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade is on it, but what exactly is her incentive to reward the school that left her league? There’s no there there for this little theory. Temple got in because of its resume, and the lack thereof for its bubble competition.
If you want to argue that 23-9 Temple could have avoided the play-in game, there is a body of supporting evidence, all sorts of games. But you can also look at all the close ones the Owls pulled out, how every one of them turned out to be crucial.
It’s all moot now. Less than an hour after the selection, Dunphy said he already had called former La Salle coach John Giannini, whose Explorers famously got out of the Dayton play-in game and then won two more to get to the Sweet 16. (Maybe Shizz Alston can call Tyrone Garland for some Southwest Philly Floater tips.)
"We talked about the the brevity of the preparation," Dunphy said of the Giannini call.
All the Owls’ preparations would go through the evening. Time no longer matters, other than the countdown clock ticking fast toward Tuesday night’s game. Dunphy mentioned he would be doing a live shot 6:30 a.m. Monday with Channel 3.
“I won’t be sleeping anyway,” Dunphy said.