Return of the King: Temple Ready for Center Stage Again in A10

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The line in the box score line above isn’t much to look at, yet it’s a sight for sore eyes to the Temple Owls. Last Saturday night 6’-11” senior Michael Eric returned for seven minutes, missed one shot and committed two fouls in the Owls’ win over Maryland. That shot wasn’t much coming from a starter whose offensive rating was over 100, who pulled in nearly a quarter of the team’s rebounds and whose block rate was nearly 8% last season.

After missing the last ten games of last season, including the NCAA Tournament, with a broken patella, Eric lasted just four games in November before another knee injury cost him thirteen more games. Maryland was the Temple anchor’s first action since before Thanksgiving. Losing only to Purdue in Puerto Rico with Eric on the floor, the Owls have now weathered the loss in the middle and are read to serve notice: with Michael Eric back Temple is primed to go on a run.

Despite a slow start to league play, Eric stands as a key mid-season “acquisition” for the Owls that could propel them back to the top of the ladder in Atlantic City, a place they’ve occupied three of the last four seasons. The Owls dropped two of their first three Atlantic 10 tilts to Dayton and at Richmond. Particularly in the eleven point loss at Richmond, the Owls were exposed inside. Although the size of Temple’s guards frustrated the Spiders, the UR big men turned the tide. 280 lbs. forward Derrick Williams had 18 points with a career high 13 rebounds and center Darius Garrett added ten rebounds and five blocks. With fill-in center Anthony Lee missing time during the game with an eye issue, Temple was helpless to even diminutive Richmond’s interior game.

The rest of the Atlantic 10 favorites have struggled of late as well, leaving the conference wide open for a late-season run. Temple’s one conference win came away against a talented St. Louis team (13th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and top 30 in offense). Xavier reverted back to Mr. Hyde and had their four-game winning streak snapped at Dayton, giving them a second conference loss already. UMass is a half-step behind Dayton in the standings but is yet to face the meat of their schedule, St. Louis, Xavier, Dayton and Temple. With nary a team in either poll, the A10 is clearly lacking an elite flag carrier despite improved depth. The return of Michael Eric to bolster an already solid defense (96.1 adj. defensive eff.) and balance the experience and talent in the backcourt combined with a soft upcoming schedule-Charlotte, St. Joe’s, Fordham, Rhode Island and George Washington-should be enough to lift Temple back towards the top of the league and into the spotlight.

Temple will be dangerous come March. The Owls have a marquee win over Duke on their resume, although the resume elsewhere lacks quality wins thanks to the A10’s self-mutilation. The resume won’t wow the selection committee, but Temple should be a different team from the one that played most of the season. The Owls received votes in both polls for the first three weeks of the season. Following the loss of Eric however, Temple fell to Bowling Green and fell off most radars. The Owls were able to limit the damage without their center, most notably surviving an overtime scare against Buffalo, so a late season run is within reach. Eric should take pressure of playmakers Ramone Moore Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez, providing better shot openings and improved efficiency, and enable the 6’4” trio to exploit properly their size advantage over smaller backcourts rather than having to slide into a forward position.

The Owls return to conference play with Michael Eric at Charlotte tonight, a building in which they have never won. A win against the Niners and Chris Braswell, who is top eight in the A10 in both offensive and defensive rebounds per game, would serve further notice. In a year in which the conference has no true leader and is searching for an identity, Michael Eric returns just in time to boost Temple and restore a familiar order to the Atlantic 10 by the time March rolls around.