It’s still a lot of unknown about the Temple men’s basketball team after Saturday’s victorious season opener. The Owls blitzed NJIT in the first half of their 72-60 win, but the second half wasn’t as smooth.
A bigger test is lurking. Temple is hosting the sixth-ranked Houston Cougars (5-0) in their American Athletic Conference opener on Tuesday at 8 p.m..
“[The Cougars] hang their hat on toughness,” Owls coach Aaron McKie said. “That game is going to be won in the paint.”
The Owls started two freshmen in the backcourt against NJIT, and the frontcourt was composed of the three most experienced returnees. Freshman guards Jeremiah Williams and Damian Dunn showed flashes of why McKie opted to start them. The duo combined for 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists.
Rebounding is a bit of an unknown, since Nate Pierre-Louis left to enter the NBA draft (and went undrafted). Senior De’Vondre Perry recorded his first career double-double (12 points, 14 rebounds) in the season opener. Temple outrebounded NJIT, 50-33. Houston averages 16 offensive rebounds per game, seventh in the country.
“We have to certainly limit their offensive rebounding,” McKie said. “We have to match their physicality, exceed it, and keep them off the offensive glass. All five guys have to be looking to hit somebody and go get the ball off the glass.”
Houston was the preseason pick to win the conference. The Cougars are led by a guard trio that’s been one of the best in the country so far.
Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes is averaging 19.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in his second season with Houston. Sophomore Marcus Sasser pours in 17.3 points per game, and freshman Tramon Mark isn’t far behind, averaging 13.8 points.
“They probably got the best guards in the country,” McKie said. “It’s going to be a great experience for our young guys. I think they’re up for the challenge.”
Williams, Dunn, Tai Strickland, and Brendan Barry received the guard minutes in the season opener. Barry did so while being with the team for less than a week, and Strickland just recovered from shoulder surgery last month.
Khalif Battle’s pending return is one that will impact the guard rotation. He was cleared by the NCAA on Nov. 25, but he missed the season opener with a hamstring injury.
“He’s a game-time decision,” McKie said. “[Hamstring injuries] are delicate. I just want him to be fully healthy.”
Houston has a 64-53 win over No. 15 Texas Tech and other impressive showings against South Carolina and Boise State. The experience advantage is tilted in Houston’s favor since it will be the Cougars’ sixth game and the Owls’ second.
Temple’s backcourt duo showed promise, and seniors Perry and J.P. Moorman each made key plays. Those flashes are what the Owls are hoping becomes the identity, and maybe even the emergence of a couple more pieces.
Asked what he wants to learn from the Houston game, McKie said: “That we can be tough. Just matching their physicality and toughness. We’re going to compete.”