Coaches generally don’t overplay their hand in terms of expressing satisfaction with a season before it is over.
Temple’s Aaron McKie, however, offered a glimpse the other day, right after his Owls had won their last regular-season game over South Florida, to get to 17-11 overall, 10-7 in the American Athletic Conference, good for a fourth seed in the AAC Tournament this week in Fort Worth, Texas, facing No. 5 seed Tulane on Friday afternoon.
Not bad for a team selected eighth of 11 teams in the preseason AAC poll. Especially since Temple finished 357th of 358 NCAA Division I teams in terms of game experience.
“Who’s opinion was that?” McKie said of that eighth-place AAC prediction. “Because it wasn’t ours in that locker room. I don’t pay attention to what — nothing against you guys. I know you have a job to do. But I’ve been defying the odds all my life. It’s the same mindset that I try to give my kids.”
Before Temple played Tulane, McKie said he complimented Tulane coach Ron Hunter on the job he was doing. Hunter returned similar words.
“Think about where they had us,” McKie said. “In our minds, we’ll show them. We can show them better than we can tell them. I’m not saying that in an arrogant way. But that’s the confidence I like to give my players.”
It was pointed out to McKie … that preseason poll was a coaches’ poll, not a media poll. That was McKie and his AAC peers ranking the teams.
“Whoever — it doesn’t matter,” McKie said, smiling. “It could be my wife and her girlfriends. … We’ve got our own thoughts on where we think we can be. We do the analytics. We watch teams and we see who’s going and who’s coming. We saw things different.”
McKie added, “Quite honestly, I thought we fell a hair short of our goals.”
There’s no doubt that Temple got over a real important bar. Most of us have at least a couple of friends who are Temple diehards. A couple that I know kept making the same point this season … this Temple was fun to watch. They want to watch.
They didn’t mean fun in the sense of being aesthetically pleasing all the time. More like, this group competes. The Owls play defense.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter how young Temple is this season. It’s McKie’s third season in charge, and fourth season since Temple announced he would replace Fran Dunphy, which meant his team needed to show real progress.
Temple diehards often like to focus on how maybe the Owls would even be better this season if not for a slew of injuries. Maybe, maybe not. Roles were found, cohesion developed. Sure, injured players were missed, each bringing value. But Temple’s new guys needed minutes to develop.
You wouldn’t have predicted any of this in December, after Temple had lost to St. Joseph’s by 19 and Central Florida by 17 in consecutive games. There was nothing about a 6-5 record that suggested progress.
The liftoff can be found in national defensive statistics … Temple is 14th in defensive three-point field-goal percentage, and 30th at defending two-pointers. The Owls’ own numbers are subpar in those categories offensively. But if defense is half the game, it’s a pretty legit sign of progress.
You don’t need a stat sheet to see the liftoff on the court, how the ball gets shared more efficiently. How all the first-year players have been showing their talent wasn’t mere hype.
If this step was mandatory, to prove both to fans and future recruits that something is going on inside the Liacouras Center, the next step is even harder, turning a pretty good team into a tournament team, then making that stick past a one-time appearance. Think of it this way: Temple is ranked 115th nationally right now by KenPom.com. There are a whole lot of teams between 115th and even the NCAA bubble.
Aaron McKie shouldn’t dwell any more on such things than he did about the preseason AAC rankings. But it speaks to how everyone is trying to get to the same place at the same time., on Selection Sunday. The Owls are three victories away this week from hearing their name. That’s a big ask, but a sign of real progress: just picking up a first-round AAC bye.
That’s my opinion anyway. I didn’t check with McKie or his wife or her girlfriends.