Feb 3, 2023 - Sports

Temple has a chance to claim top AAC spot

Temple's Khalif Battle shoots over Houston's Marcus Sasser.

Temple's Khalif Battle loves to take the big shots. Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images

Temple head coach Aaron McKie is king of the understatement.

Driving the news: Temple plays third-ranked Houston on Sunday at the Liacouras Center with a chance to claim the top spot in the American Athletic Conference.

  • The rematch comes weeks after Temple beat then-No. 1 in the country Houston 56-55 on their home floor. The win, only the Owls’ third in 21 tries against No. 1-ranked teams, ended the Cougars’ nine-game win streak and remains one of only two blemishes on their record this year.

Yes, but: You’d never know it by talking to the fourth-year coach McKie, who told reporters it’s nice to see Temple mentioned alongside teams vying for an NCAA Tournament berth in March.

Why it matters: There’s no denying it. This is the biggest game of the year for the Owls, who will get a jolt of energy from a rollicking crowd at the Liacouras Center, which could be at capacity for the first time in three years.

  • Last time the arena sold out was for a February 2020 game against Villanova, who Temple beat earlier this season in thrilling fashion.

The big picture: Houston, coached by Kelvin Sampson, has established itself as a powerhouse in recent years. The team lost to Villanova in last year’s Elite Eight and made it all the way to the Final Four in 2021, before losing to top-seeded Baylor.

Temple is also historically one of the best programs in the country, dating back to its glory days under late Hall of Fame coach John Chaney. But after five Elite Eight appearances between 1988 and 2001, the Owls haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2019.

  • The team is 6-5 all-time at home when facing teams ranked in the top 10, including a loss to then-No. 8 Houston back in 2020.

The matchup: Look for top-scoring guards Damian Dunn and Khalif Battle to power the Owls’ offense while the Cougars are led by guard Marcus Sasser and forward Jarace Walker — who average 16 and 11 points a game — respectively.

What they’re saying: Nick Gangewere, sports editor of The Temple News, tells Axios that Sunday’s environment is going to be “pretty special.” The “buzz is slowly starting to come back” with Temple rattling off four straight wins, including back-to-back in overtime, after some dispiriting early-season losses.

  • Temple’s reputation as a “commuter school” has depressed crowds, with university officials saying average attendance this season has been about 4,600. The “Cherry Crusade” student section is expected to be brimming Sunday.

Who we're watching: A fan-favorite, Battle is known for firing off a dazzling array of jump shots that pump up fans.

  • He comes from a long lineage of great basketball players. His dad was a standout at the University of New Haven, and his brother Tyus, played for Syracuse. Battle even has his own clothing line, “Battle Tested,” now that the NCAA allows athletes to profit off their own name through NILs, that’s a nod to the adversity he’s overcome.

His former high school coach Eric Elliott of Trenton Catholic tells Axios that he expects Battle to play big against Houston.

  • “He wants to be that guy to take that big shot,” Elliott says, “or be on the other team’s best player. He rises in those situations. It’s who he is.”

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