The Temple Owls are set to face another uphill battle.
Temple (14-17, 6-12 AAC) will face Southern Methodist in the first round In the American Athletic Conference Tournament at 8 p.m. Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas.
SMU (19-11, 9-9) is the closest team geographically to the Dickies Center and likely the only team capable of a home-court advantage. The Mustangs lead the conference in scoring (72.9 points per game) and field-goal percentage (.451).
Temple split the season series with SMU, falling to the Mustangs in Dallas, 68-52, on Jan. 18 before riding a 19-point comeback to a 97-90, double-overtime victory at home three weeks later.
A win Thursday would set up a showdown with the best defensive and rebounding team in the conference in No. 2-seeded Houston. Temple lost its only game with the Cougars, 78-74, at home on Jan. 7.
Temple players expressed confidence in their ability to slow down a familiar, high-powered SMU offense after practice on Tuesday. What they are not familiar with is a long conference tournament run, having won just one AAC tournament game in the last three seasons.
“The team that comes out and throws the first punch is the one that usually wins,” senior wing Quinton Rose said. “They can score with anybody in the country. Defensively, we’ve got to get stops, make them uncomfortable, and I think we’ll be fine.”
Rose, who was named second-team all-AAC on Tuesday, ranks second in the conference in scoring (16.4 points per game) and is the AAC’s all-time leader in points (1,860), steals (231), and field goals made (675). He earned his third conference honor in four seasons.
Rose and junior guard Nate Pierre-Louis, a fellow captain, will rely upon their limited experience in recent seasons to get newcomers like center Jake Forrester and guards Monty Scott and Josh Pierre-Louis ready for the important stage.
Nate Pierre-Louis has led Temple’s defensive effort all season and knows the challenge the Mustangs pose. Four SMU players average at least 11 points per game.
“SMU is a really difficult team to guard,” Pierre-Louis said. “I feel like we did a really good job defensively locking in on certain guys and making timely stops. We need to make sure to do that in the first five minutes and dominate the game on the defensive end.”
Temple will enter the tournament with a five-game losing streak. Aaron McKie led the Owls to a 6-1 record to start his first season as head coach before the season took a turn during conference play.
The team’s mindset going into the conference tournament is vastly different than last season, when an NCAA Tournament at-large bid was all but secured. Temple needs four wins in four days and is choosing to see the challenge as a new season.
“We have a clean slate now,” McKie said. “We dug a hole for ourselves and it’s a tough road that we face. But it starts with SMU and we have another opportunity.”