NEW YORK - The 11 head men's basketball coaches from the American Athletic Conference sat side by side in brown leather chairs yesterday, each taking a turn to briefly discussing his team's prospects for the looming season.
When it came his time to clutch the microphone, Temple coach Fran Dunphy cut right to the point. In the wake of a dismal 9-22 season that snapped the program's streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances at six, the Owls' focus entering the 2014-15 campaign is clear.
"Well, certainly the biggest change we have to make is on the defensive end," Dunphy said to those gathered for AAC Media Day at The New York Athletic Club, just south of Central Park. "We were OK offensively, but we were not where we needed to be on the defensive end."
As the team readies for its Nov. 14 season opener against American, Temple is spending more time than usual working to shore up its defense, even if it means sacrificing practice minutes typically used for offensive drills. Dunphy, in his ninth season on North Broad, said this preseason probably signifies the most time he's spent working on defense. It's definitely the most since senior point guard Will Cummings arrived on campus.
But it's certainly warranted after last season's squad allowed 78.1 points per game, a mark that ranked not only last in the AAC but a whopping 330th in Division I.
"We've just concentrated tremendous amounts of effort on it," said Dunphy, whose team was picked in the conference's preseason poll to finish sixth this season. "We actually threw some zone at each other [on Tuesday]. We'll see how that works. We're not afraid to try anything new. But it's no different than every other year and every other team you see here - you've got to be really tough in the scoring area and you've got to rebound that basketball."
The extra defensive work aside, this year's Temple squad features several new players who should bolster the team's ability thwart its opponents. The addition of forward Jaylen Bond, the now-eligible Texas transfer from Plymouth Whitemarsh High, alone changes the dynamic of the lineup because of his ability to defend both guards and forwards.
The return of the versatile Daniel Dingle, who Cummings yesterday said looks back to his old self after rehabbing a torn meniscus, also figures to help in that regard. Dunphy said this group of players is "a bunch of versatile people with many interchangeable parts."
"I think we learned from [last season] and we're just making sure we get back to that mindset that the teams in the past had, of making sure we're defensively getting stops," Cummings said. "And with defense comes your offense, so you go from there."
Though Bond will be able to play right away and Clemson transfer Devin Coleman has to sit out the first 10 games, there remains some ambiguity regarding the eligibility of the Owls' other recent transfer.
Jesse Morgan, who sat out last season after transferring from UMass, has one semester of eligibility remaining. The NCAA, according to Dunphy, notified Temple that Morgan can play in the first 19 games of the season or the final 21 games of the season and the postseason.
Morgan, Dunphy said, is still deciding which option to choose, but word will come soon. Once on the court, the Olney High product offers the Owls a long-range shooter and, more notably, another aggressive defender. When the team gathers at the end of each practice, Dunphy likes to read off stats kept from that day's session. One is deflections, and Morgan owns that category.
"That's what he adds," Dunphy said. "He's a hound on the basketball defensively."
The AAC this season features three new teams - East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa - and four new coaches. One of the conference's newcomers is Orlando Antigua, the first-year coach at South Florida. Antigua spent the last five seasons as a John Calipari assistant at Kentucky, where he recruited and coached 76ers rookie Nerlens Noel.
Antigua keeps tabs on his former players - a tall task, considering the NBA factory that Kentucky has become - and that includes the Sixers' highly touted 6-11 forward. The timing of Antigua's flight back to Tampa last night overlapped with Noel's NBA debut, but the USF coach said he would be monitoring the box score.
"[Philadelphia fans] can expect in Nerlens an unbelievable competitor, a dynamite kid that the community is going to love off the court, but they're also going to love his passion and competitive spirit on the court," Antigua said. "I don't know if there's a guy with quicker hands and quicker fast-twitch muscles off the floor. At his size."
Larry Brown, whose SMU team was picked to finish second in the AAC behind only the defending-national champion Connecticut Huskies, offered high praise of Fran Dunphy, describing him as "maybe the most underrated coach I've ever been around" . . . Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey, expected to make up Temple's starting backcourt, were both preseason picks for second-team all-conference . . . The Owls will play two closed-door preseason scrimmages at home the following two weekends, first against Penn State and then against Drexel.