About 10 minutes into Temple's opener this season against American, it was obvious: This was a different team. The Owls were a basketball team again.
There was nothing pretty about that opener. New forward Jaylen Bond sat out with a sprained ankle, a couple of more transfers were six weeks from being eligible, and the Owls made just 11 of 48 shots for a season-low shooting percentage.
Still, you saw a distinct difference from the last couple of seasons. By now, the statistical difference is startling. Last season, the Owls gave up 78.1 points - a ridiculously high average, if you think about it. This season, they're at 59.9. The differential is the largest in Division I hoops.
Did you look at an ugly 40-37 win over American and predict a 13-5 American Athletic Conference regular season, and 22-9 overall? No, coming off 9-22, you probably didn't see it flipping to 22-9. Maybe you thought the NIT would be a sign of progress. The particulars were all off in the future. It's fascinating how parts sometimes fit together. Bond doesn't just get rebounds, but meaningful rebounds, put-backs when there don't seem to be opportunities to be put back. Once transfers Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman joined the play in December, the Owls were complete. A romp over Kansas showed they were for real.
You've seen the ups and downs. That Kansas game was a one-off - certainly for Kansas. An injury to top player Will Cummings probably cost the Owls a game or maybe even two, which keeps them sweating out NCAA tournament consideration going into their AAC quarterfinal Friday with Memphis in Hartford, Conn.
The most impressive thing Temple has done in AAC play is not throw in a clunker against a lesser team. Most teams do that. The Owls are undefeated against all the AAC teams outside the top three. (The flip side: They are only 1-5 against the top trio of SMU, Tulsa, and Cincinnati.)
That ability not to sustain a really bad loss in league play has to be considered an achievement. Right, Jesse Morgan?
"Nah. What would have been impressive is if we'd won the championship, the regular-season championship," Morgan said on the Liacouras Center floor after a practice this week. "We played well this season, but we still had our goals we set at the beginning of the season. We're not content."
The NCAA committee is allowed to consider transfers, not just injuries, when evaluating prospective tournament teams, which is in Temple's favor.
Still, there are ups and downs. Morgan, for instance, hadn't been shooting too well in the games before Saturday against Connecticut. I asked him if it was possible that, playing ball again after two years on the sidelines, he had hit a wall late in the season, mentally or physically.
"Uh, I wouldn't say that," Morgan said, fully understanding the question. "You play well sometimes and play not so well sometimes. When you're not playing well, you're trying to do other things, or encouraging your teammates. In our wins, guys stepped up. That's the most important thing. I wouldn't say I hit a wall. You've just got to keep working."
Realizing players can hit a wall and then climb over it, Morgan showed against UConn that he didn't notice any wall. He had gone to one of Temple's coaches at halftime and suggested that he be put on UConn star Ryan Boatright, that he could defend Boatright into submission. That's exactly what happened, and Morgan also hit 5 of 7 three-pointers.
"There have been some ups and downs," Owls coach Fran Dunphy said of Morgan's defense, which Temple relies on. "He was spectacular on Saturday. He was great in all ways on Saturday. I busted on him a little bit yesterday. He wanted to come out of the game after about five minutes in the second half, because he had worked really hard. I said, 'Yo, my man. How about if you push yourself a little bit more and we don't have to take you of the game.' But he did a really good job, and shooting 5 for 7 on threes, that's pretty impressive."
Dunphy pushed him because that's what Dunphy does, more than outsiders realize. Dunphy also knew Morgan was not trying to pace himself. The senior had waited too long to get back on the court.
"I think his mind-set is really being focused as much as he can this late in the season," Dunphy said. "I think it's hitting him that these are his last opportunities of playing college basketball."
It's probably hit them all that they don't have to be pretty to win basketball games. That Kansas game - when the Owls shot 58 percent and the Jayhawks barely managed half that - was one for the books, but there are a lot of other ways to win basketball games, and Temple has so far found 21 of them.