Temple wasn't a real good basketball team at this time a year ago. Things would change in the last 2 months of the season. Dramatically.

The Owls, picked to finish ninth in the Atlantic 10, won the conference tournament as the second seed to get into the NCAA field for the first time since the last of John Chaney's five Elite Eight appearances in 2001.

If you asked second-year coach Fran Dunphy where the transformation began, he pointed to a 10-point loss to Duke at the Wachovia Center in early January, in which his Owls managed to make it interesting, after falling behind by 19 in the second half.

Even though the Owls fell to 6-7, Dunphy saw something that indicated they were headed in the proper direction. They lost their next game, by two at Charlotte. Then they won 15 of their last 20.

Tomorrow at noon, the Owls (4-3) host No. 8 Tennessee (6-1) at the Liacouras Center. Last season, they opened with a 17-point loss in Knoxville. Next Saturday they're at nationally-ranked Kansas, which will come to North Broad Street next season. And on Dec. 29, they'll bus to the Main Line to face another Top 25 club.

"I think any time you can challenge yourself against what are arguably some of the best teams in the country, you have to take advantage of that," Dunphy said. "As a competitor you want to test yourself, to see what kind of mettle you have. And the opportunity to bring a quality program to our campus is great for everyone at our university.

"We grew in that [Duke] game. We were in deep trouble early on. But somehow we dug down, and figured out that we could play with those guys. We could've just got blown out. Instead we started guarding better, we ran the floor better, we were taking care of the ball, against a very talented team. Once you do that, the next time it doesn't seem as overwhelming. And those are the kind of teams you're going to have to play at some point."

These Owls were picked second, behind No. 10 Xavier (8-0). They will meet in Cincinnati on Feb. 5.

In the meantime . . .

"I don't think we've evolved to where we're going to be," Dunphy said, "although there's a little more understanding of where we are as a program. Our three seniors have had enough experience at the highest levels. Hopefully that will translate into more poise."

And even more success.

The fact that schools like Tennessee and Kansas were willing to schedule home-and-homes in North Philly is no minor step.

"Kansas' first choice was the Wachovia Center, but that wasn't going to be available," Dunphy said. "Bill Self wanted to get the Morris twins [freshmen Markieff and Marcus, from Prep Charter] home. And [Tennessee's] Bruce Pearl wanted to bring a team to Philadelphia. He didn't really have to play us on the road. Some guys never want to leave their facilities.

"When we go to places like Tennessee and Kansas, that's an experience I hope our kids never forget. Now, we get to bring that type of atmosphere to our fans." *