Coach Aaron McKie’s 2021 recruiting class did more than exceed expectations. They were vital to Temple’s season.

Freshmen forward Zach Hicks and guard Hysier Miller didn’t believe they would play valuable minutes in their first collegiate season, but they entered the rotation when injuries hit Temple’s young team.

Miller, who started the last eight games of the season, averaged 4.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists. Meanwhile, Hicks became a knockdown shooter and put up 8.3 points and 4.1 rebounds. The two helped the Owls finish 17-12 overall and 10-7 in the American Athletic Conference while clinching a No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the AAC quarterfinals.

Although Temple fell 69-60 to Tulane on March 11, Hicks and Miller carried the team in their final game of the season. Miller had a career-high 21 points and went 8-of-9 from the free-throw line, while Hicks had 12 points and shot 4-of-12 from the field.

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Temple was one of the least experienced teams in Division I basketball, and Miller and Hicks were some of the players who had to quickly adjust from high school to the college level. Temple had no choice but to play them, so they received early reps in games and were allowed to learn from their mistakes and solidify roles.

“As a freshman, you make one mistake, you look to the bench to see if you’re gonna come off,” said redshirt freshman guard Damian Dunn. “I just keep telling those guys all the time, we’re in a space now where we lost a few guys and we’ve been in and out of rotations and down bodies the whole year, so if you make a mistake, keep going, don’t look over your shoulder.”

When Hicks was being recruited by Temple as a senior at Camden Catholic High School, McKie had a conversation with the 6-foot-7 forward about potentially redshirting his freshman year.

“The redshirt conversation was more about me getting bigger and taking the physicality the D-I level comes with,” Hicks said. “I think I handled it pretty well.”

But he ended up taking the court. Early in the season, Hicks saw some minutes off the bench. He even made quite the impression in the Owls home opener against Maryland Eastern Shore on Nov. 10, going 3-of-6 from beyond the arc.

He solidified his role as a 3-point shooter in an 85-48 victory against Delaware State on Dec. 12. Hicks was 10-of-16 from deep, breaking a record for threes made in a game. He finished with a career-high 35 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Since then Hicks played more than 20 minutes per game.

Miller saw little time on the court until he played 16 minutes against La Salle on Dec. 1. In the first few seconds after he subbed in for guard Jeremiah Williams, Miller committed a turnover and a foul. Miller attributed part of that rough start to nerves, but those minor mistakes became a large part of his development in the second half of the season.

“Early on, the speed and not being in the best shape caught up to me,” Miller said. “Just playing faster than I was accustomed to, so I had to adjust to the speed and be able to make the reads on the floor.”

Temple adopteda next-man-up mentality after leading scorer guard Khalif Battle was ruled out for the season. McKie looked to the bench players, like Hicks, to fill scoring gap.

“McKie was always like, ‘Stay ready, you never know what could happen,’” Hicks said. “Every practice, even if you’re not playing, he’s always hard on you. He doesn’t want you to come out there and not give it your all.”

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But it wasn’t until Dunn (ankle) and Williams (shoulder) went down with injuries against South Florida on Feb. 7 that McKie fully leaned on Miller and Hicks. The following week, Miller played the full 40 minutes and made his first start of the season against Tulane on Feb. 12. He finished the game with nine points and eight assists. Hicks did the bulk of the scoring in that game, shooting 5-of-11 from three — with three ‌shots being assisted by Miller — and compiling 21 points.

“The more they started playing, the more we started to trust them with the ball,” Dunn said.

Next season, Temple should have a healthy lineup with Battle, Williams and Dunn getting back in the mix‌‌. And McKie said Miller and Hicks will be “the face of the program.”

“This season just shows how it doesn’t always go your way originally,” Miller said. “But as long as you continue to work, there’s always going to be light at the end of the tunnel.”