HARTFORD, Conn. - Weird how the basketball bounces some times. A loss to a 9-22 Temple team had to be a major factor in keeping Southern Methodist out of last season's NCAA tournament. This time around, the Owls racked up 23 wins, yet SMU proved to be a hurdle too high.
Way too high on Saturday afternoon. In the season's third meeting with SMU, in the American Athletic Conference semifinals at the XL Center, Temple basically had a shooter's chance. So much for that.
"If you limit them to one outside shot, you've got a chance," Larry Brown said after SMU, already an NCAA lock, had moved on, 69-56. "If they get into the paint, you have no chance, and that's all we talked about."
Temple coach Fran Dunphy said he kept seeing the word bubble attached to his team and its NCAA chances as he has watched games in recent weeks. "So I guess I have to believe whatever is out there, that the prognosticators have it pretty much in tow," Dunphy said, his team now 23-10.
He can believe this: He should be rooting for Brown's Mustangs Sunday against Connecticut. If UConn wins, the Huskies will steal a bid from somebody. The last team in would become the first team out.
Will the committee automatically limit the AAC's number of bids and give Temple's bid to UConn? They say it doesn't work that way. Nevertheless, SMU is the obvious rooting interest on North Broad Street, if not in the XL Center, which was on fire again Saturday as the Huskies came back to beat Tulsa, possibly knocking the Golden Hurricane off the bubble.
Earlier, on the court, bracketology numbers were overshadowed by another statistic, Temple's three-point numbers: 4 for 24. "I thought there was a misprint," Brown said of that stat. Jesse Morgan hit a couple early as the Owls forged a 17-7 lead, which means Temple was good for only two more the rest of the way, both by Owls guard Quenton DeCosey in the final nine minutes after Temple had fallen behind by double digits.
"Did we shoot poor shots?" Dunphy said. "Not necessarily. But we shot some quick shots that didn't go, and I think against [SMU], because they are so efficient, that when you get your opportunities, you must make it very good."
"They kind of pack the lane, do different things to make it tough to finish over the top of them," said Owls point guard Will Cummings. "When your jump shots don't fall vs. them, it's going to be a long night."
One reason Cummings is such a terrific point guard is that he's attuned to the nuances of his sport. Explaining how SMU's switch to a zone near the end of the first half put a speed bump in front of the Owls, Cummings said it was about expectations.
Plenty of opponents played zone against Temple this season. Just not Larry Brown. Not his thing. Brown suggested Dean Smith would let him hear about it in the afterlife.
"You think more on offense instead of just playing basketball," Cummings said of the sudden new look, calling it a rhythm-buster. It prevented Temple from taking more than a two-point lead into halftime, and the Owls never gained traction against SMU's man-to-man after the break.
"I didn't think it was a fluke, either game," Brown said of the earlier wins over Temple. "But I also thought we had to play great defense to win. I was scared to death coming here."
SMU's inside guys really carried the day at both ends.
"I think when you play good offense against Temple, it affects them offensively because they can't get out and run," Brown said. "And Cummings is so good in the open floor, and their game is to get into the paint and pitch."
"That's what kind of hurt today, too," Cummings said. "Not getting that many run-outs. They kind of limited our thrust, of getting easy points. . . . We just kept playing. That's kind of what they gave us. You really couldn't get into the lane. We wanted to be aggressive. We weren't going to hesitate and not shoot."
When you're a college basketball player and your team isn't going to the NCAA tournament, Selection Sunday is just another day. "I probably was asleep," Cummings said about last year.
Temple's point guard added that he may not even watch this year's show. Cummings won't be asleep, though. The ball is just out of his hands. A play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, would be fine with him.
"I don't care," Cummings said. "Just put me in the tournament, and we'll make a run."