Temple’s matchup 10 years ago against Duke was a few days away when Khalif Wyatt realized that Duke’s coaches would be scouting the Owls.
Wyatt grew up a Duke fan in Norristown, drawn to players like JJ Redick and Jay Williams and Shane Battier. He loved how the Blue Devils played hard, shot three-pointers, and smacked their hands on the hardwood when they needed a crucial stop on defense.
And if Duke was scouting the Owls, then Wyatt imagined Mike Krzyzewski laying out a plan to his assistants about how the Blue Devils were going to guard Temple’s leading scorer.
“Coach K knows my name,” Wyatt said he thought before the game. “That’s pretty cool.”
Unless Villanova tops Duke on Monday in the National Championship, then the upset Wyatt led in 2012 against the third-ranked Blue Devils will stand as the final Big 5 win over Coach K before he retires.
Wyatt scored a game-high 22 points for Temple in front of a sold-out crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, hit a pair of key late threes, and ended his night surrounded by his classmates after they rushed the floor. Wyatt won an Atlantic 10 title, was the conference’s player of the year as a senior, played in five NCAA Tournament games, and had a list of important moments during his time on North Broad Street.
But he said beating Coach K — and the team he grew up rooting for — will always be at the top of his list.
“After the game, he for sure knew who I was,” Wyatt said.
The Owls arrived at the Wells Fargo Center in January of 2012 on the Broad Street Line as Fran Dunphy had his players ride the subway from campus. Temple had won three straight and their matchup against Duke — who featured eight future NBA players — would be their final tune-up before conference play.
It was a game against one of college basketball’s premier programs, but Wyatt said Dunphy always found a way to ready his team for big games as if it was any other. The Owls prepared for Duke the same way they did five days earlier for Delaware.
And the subway ride, Wyatt said, made sure the Owls stayed humble.
“One of his favorite things was to tell us: ‘You guys aren’t really the tough guys. The tough guys are the guys getting up at five in the morning, taking the train to work to feed his two kids, and then taking the train back. Those are the tough guys,’ ” Wyatt said. “He was really big on respecting the game and respecting everyday people who sacrifice a lot for their lives.”
It was little things like that from Dunphy — “jewels,” Wyatt said — that he still carries with him. He leaned on Dunphy’s life lessons when his basketball career took him to three continents, slides them into the summer camps he runs for kids, and plans to pass them onto his own children.
Wyatt graduated from Temple in 2013 and spent the summer with the 76ers before signing to play in China. He’s played professionally in Israel, the Philippines, France, and Romania. He returned to Pennsylvania earlier this month from Romania, cutting his time short to be home for the birth of his first child, a daughter named Zuri.
“My favorite part of the job is that I got to see the world,” Wyatt said. “I’ve gotten to experience different cultures, live in different places for a long amount of time, meet people and have conversations with people, build relationships with families and just do stuff that I would’ve never been able to do any other way. Just traveling and playing basketball. It’s something I don’t take for granted. I got to see some cool places and my passport is pretty filled up.”
Wyatt has made a living overseas off the style of play that Kansas coach Bill Self once described as an “old man’s game.” He’s still as crafty in Romania as he was at Temple, where he blossomed from a two-star recruit into one of the nation’s top guards with a perfect pump fake, a confident demeanor, and a knack for knocking down off-balance shots.
Phil Martelli once said Wyatt is “playing a three-on-three game as often as he can” and former 76ers coach Brett Brown called Wyatt “an old-school, old-man, YMCA player who really knows how to play basketball.” Whatever it is, it’s worked. His game, which Wyatt said is based heavily on basketball IQ, is catered to the European style of play.
Wyatt returned to the court last November after a torn right ACL during a summer pickup game in Philly cost him all of last season. He said he was never injured before suffering three injuries — two torn ACLs and a torn meniscus — in the last five years years.
“In my college career, I was kind of a chubby kid so when I got hurt, everyone thought I would blow up and be like this 250-pound guy walking around,” Wyatt said. “I got in better shape when I was injured and learned more about my body. Everything happens for a reason and it’s all about how you respond to adversity.”
While rehabbing in 2017 from his first ACL tear, Wyatt began formulating a plan to teach kids through camps and clinics. He wanted to have the same influence on young people that Dunphy and Norristown coach Binky Johnson had on him.
“What do I want my camps and clinics to represent? What do I want my message to be? It came down to mindset. The marathon mindset,” Wyatt said. “It’s always about overcoming adversity. There’s always going to be something whether it’s injury or a family member ill or anything. There’s always going to be something and it’s all about how you respond to adversity. That’s what life is all about.”
Wyatt’s M-Sport — the “M” is for marathon — company hosts camps and clinics, offers mental skills training to young athletes, helps families navigate the basketball world, and creates sports apparel. The company — along with possibly a coaching career — is what Wyatt plans to do once his playing days are over.
The most fulfilling part, Wyatt said, is seeing the progress of a child who went to his camp five years ago or being told by a parent how Wyatt influenced their child the way Dunphy did for him.
“It’s a long journey,” Wyatt said he tells young players. “Never be shortsighted and do things for instant gratification or instant pleasure because those things usually don’t last. So when you have a broader perspective and a marathon mindset when you think about the long race, you make decisions based on five years from now, 10 years from now. You don’t make decisions based on 30 seconds from now.”
It had been 16 years since Temple’s last win over Duke as the Owls had lost nine straight to the Blue Devils when their train pulled into South Philly. Duke was a No. 1 seed the previous March and had won five straight games by an average margin of 25 points.
Three of their players — Austin Rivers and Mason and Miles Plumlee — were first-round picks in the next two NBA drafts while Seth Curry would become of the league’s better shooters.
The Blue Devils were loaded and Wyatt said the sold-out crowd leaned 70% for Duke. But the unranked Owls didn’t show any fear. They forced 16 turnovers, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson scored 17 points, Ramone Moore and Anthony Lee each scored 11, and Juan Fernandez dished out six assists.
Duke cut the Owls lead to three with five minutes left, seeming to take the wind out of Temple’s upset bid. But then Wyatt knocked down threes on consecutive possessions, put the Owls ahead by nine and ran down the court with his arms extended like an airplane after his shot fell through the net.
“That was the one like, ‘Alright, we have a really good chance to win this game,’ ” Wyatt said.
The win was soon sealed at 78-73, the students rushed the court, and Wyatt shook Coach K’s hand.
He knew who Wyatt was.
“It’s good to see him going out this way and I’m glad they’re in the Final Four,” Wyatt said. “He gets to be on this stage for one last time. It’s time. Everybody has to retire at some point.”