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Temple's Fernandez, debuting against Villanova, conjures up memories of Sanchez

JUAN "PEPE" SANCHEZ with a jump shot. That's how Davidson coach Bob McKillop described Juan Manuel Fernandez. Pepe Sanchez without a jumper wasn't such a bad thing for Temple basketball.

JUAN "PEPE" SANCHEZ with a jump shot.

That's how Davidson coach Bob McKillop described Juan Manuel Fernandez.

Pepe Sanchez without a jumper wasn't such a bad thing for Temple basketball.

Now, another 6-4 guard from Argentina has made his way to North Broad Street. Fernandez makes his Owls debut tonight against 18th-ranked Villanova at the Pavilion. Welcome to Philadelphia. Good thing he had an entire weekend of practice to get ready.

"I heard something [about the Big 5], but I'm trying not to listen much," said Fernandez, who arrived on Friday. "So I can be relaxed in the game."

How much he can help, and how quickly, will have to play itself out. But at some point, probably sooner than later, he figures to be more than just a part of the supporting cast.

Did we mention that he wears No. 4, just like Sanchez? But he wears it because so did his father, who played professionally back home.

"I was too young when [Sanchez] was playing for Temple," Fernandez said. "He's really recognized in our country, and everyone loves him.

"They love the way he plays. I've always looked up to him."

As a senior in 1999-2000, Sanchez was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and a third-team All-America, for a team that earned a two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Didn't matter that he averaged all of eight points a game. He controlled the game for former coach John Chaney, who was there to greet the newest Owl at his first practice as only the Hall of Famer could.

"You know I had to beat Pepe up a few times when he got here," Chaney told Fernandez, who only smiled. "Don't make Franny [Dunphy] have to do that to you. Remember, no turnovers."

Sanchez, of course, took home a gold medal from the 2004 Olympics.

Fernandez was a big part of Argentina's Under-18 squad that also won gold in last summer's Tournament of the Americas in Formosa. In eight games, he averaged 8.4 points in 17 minutes, to go with 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals. He made 10 of 14 from the arc and 15 of 16 at the foul line.

Fernandez saved his best for the final 77-64 win over the United States, which had only lost once before in that competition. He scored 16, in 31 minutes, hitting both his treys and all four free throws. His line also included four rebounds, three steals, two assists and even a block.

"I've heard so much about him, and watched so much on tape, and I know he has a feel for the game," said Dunphy, whose Owls (5-5) have lost two straight, both on the road, since rolling then-No. 8 Tennessee at home on Dec. 13. "Our kids already appreciate that. They got to play some pickup ball with him on his official visit."

Whatever the learning curve, Fernandez is just eager to get started.

"I had the option of going to Europe [and turn pro], but I liked the idea of [this]," he said. "My parents always wanted me to graduate in something. So I like the combination.

"I spoke with [Pepe] only in e-mail, and I met him just once. It's not every day you get to talk to someone like him . . . I think I will never have the defense that he had, or the intelligence. It's a good thing to be compared to him, because he's a very good player."

Some people will obviously see him as the second coming. Maybe simply being the first Juan Fernandez will be plenty.

"It will take time for me to adjust to everything, because it's a whole new life," he said. "I just came here to keep improving and learning. I'm really excited about that. It's another culture. But I want to take the challenge.

"It's very different to the basketball we play. We have a 24-second shot clock, so I will try to adapt. I think I will.

"I will see what coach wants from me, for the team. Hopefully we can get to the NCAA Tournament, like they did last year. I think that would be very important, since it's my first year."

The Wildcats (11-1) have beaten Temple three straight times. And they've won an incredible 17 of their last 18 Big 5 games. They haven't lost to one of the other four at their place since February 2004, when unbeaten Saint Joseph's won by seven.

The last time Dunphy beat Villanova was December 2002, when Penn won in South Philly by 14.

In his first game, at McGonigle Hall against Wisconsin, Sanchez played 34 minutes. He finished with four points, going 0-for-5 from three. But he had five steals, four boards and three assists. Temple lost, in overtime.

Now, it's someone else's turn.

"We're winging it at this point," Dunphy said. "There is no handbook. We're trying to see how far along he is, which I think is very far. After Villanova, we get another week before we play Kent State. In that 10-day period we should give him a pretty good sense and feel for what we're trying to do. So he'll get indoctrinated quickly. I think his transition will be less burdensome than others.

"Still, it can't be easy on him. We just have to let him be the player he's going to be, give him some time to make the adjustment. It'll be interesting to see how he absorbs. But let's not put too much on him."

At least until maybe the A-10 opener. *