Head coach Aaron McKie said Temple was “thrown in the deep end of the ocean” on Dec. 22. The Owls had to play the preseason American Athletic Conference favorite, Houston. It was Temple’s second game of the season and Houston’s sixth.

The difference was evident in Temple’s most lopsided loss of the season, 76-50. Now the question is, can Temple swim?

Things won’t be much easier when the Owls (3-3, 2-3 AAC) host the eighth-ranked Cougars (12-1, 7-1) Saturday at the Liacouras Center. A one-point loss against Tulsa is Houston’s lone blemish. The Cougars avenged that loss by beating Tulsa by 27 points on Wednesday.

“I came away from that [first Houston game] saying to myself, this was great for our inexperienced guys and our younger guys to get that experience against a team who has been together for such a long time,” McKie said.

The Owls have had another COVID pause since that game, but they’re still more experienced. Freshman point guard Jeremiah Williams is becoming who McKie wants him to be on the defensive end, and Damian Dunn is the go-to guy. Brendan Barry’s shooting has opened driving lanes for Dunn and resulted in easier post touches for Jake Forrester. None of these things could have been said before the first meeting.

Houston’s success comes from its rebounding. The Cougars lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. When you grab 43% of your own misses, sometimes your best offense can be a missed shot.

Temple was outrebounded 43-26 in the first meeting and gave up 15 offensive boards. Houston finished with a 17-4 advantage in second-chance points.

“If we take the hustle plays away, we give ourselves a better chance,” McKie said.

“It’s going to be tough-man contest,” he added later. “It’s more about who wants it more. Those guys have demonstrated they want it more than their opponents throughout the season.”

One of the Owls’ biggest improvements through six games has been guard play. Williams’ 6-foot-5 frame at point guard has bothered opponents. Dunn has been one of the nation’s best players at getting to the free-throw line, and Dartmouth transfer Brendan Barry’s shooting is translating seamlessly to the AAC.

There’s also the return of Khalif Battle from his hamstring injury, which has sidelined him since the season opener.

As important as rebounding is, the play of the guards could be just as critical. Houston has one of the best backcourts in the country. Quentin Grimes (17.9 ppg) and Marcus Sasser (16.4) are among the AAC’s scoring leaders and 6-7 senior forward Justin Gorham is the team’s leading rebounder (9.3 rpg). DeJon Jarreau does it all, and freshman Tramon Mark could be a thorn in the AAC’s side for years to come.

This game was originally scheduled for Feb. 10 but was moved up after a COVID pause in the Cincinnati program.

“We’re taking baby steps and getting better with some things,” McKie said. “I wish we could have played more games going into this, but this is our reality. Hopefully, we’re ready to match that intensity and toughness that they bring every game.”