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March 12, 2013

Best of the best

Khalif Wyatt was getting taped up prior to Tuesday's practice when he received news that should surprise no one.

Wyatt, a 6-foot-4 senior guard who leads Temple and the Atlantic 10 in scoring, was named the conference's player of the year. Although the Owls have had their share of good players over the years like Dionte Christmas, Ramone Moore and Lavoy Allen, Wyatt is the first Temple player to win the award since Pepe Sanchez in 2000.

"It means a lot," Wyatt said. "This is definitely the best the league has been since I got here. As far as Temple, it's big for Temple -- big for me, big for my teammates and big for my coaches. I think it says a lot about this year's team, this year's guys, Coach (Fran Dunphy) and everybody who helped me get to this point."

Wyatt is the 10th Temple player to win the A-10 player of the year award and won conference player of the week honors four times during the regular season, including this week. Heading into Friday's Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinal game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, he leads the league in scoring at 19.9 points per game, has led the Owls in scoring 20 times and has been the game-high scorer 15 times, which represents almost half of Temple's 31 games.

"I think Khalif has had a tremendous offensive basketball year," Dunphy said. "I made a statement the other day (after the Owls' win over VCU Sunday) that his defense was about as good as he had played all year long, and I'd like to think he's appreciating that end of the floor more than he did earlier on."

Wyatt did grab a game-high four steals in Temple's 84-76 win over the 21st-ranked Rams, and his defense has improved, but the Norristown native has made his mark by scoring - in bunches, and in big games. His 30-point effort Sunday marked the fifth time this season he has scored at least 30 points, a mark that leads the A-10, and his 16 games of 20-or-more points is a milestone that also leads the conference. He scored what was then a career-high 33 points and went a perfect 15 of 15 from the free-throw line to help the Owls knock off then-No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, 83-79, back on Dec. 22.

"All season long he's been the guy we could count on the most," Dunphy said. "He's the guy who's the most talented offensively, not only in terms of scoring but in making plays as well. He's done a wonderful job and I'm very happy for him with this award. We've talked about it a little bit now with other people in that I'm not sure it strikes you right away how impressive this. In five or 10 years he'll look back at what was a great Atlantic 10 league and season, and he was voted the best player. And really what you take away from that is what other people think about you. His peers voted for him to be player of the year and I think that's very impressive."

Ever since his playing days at Norristown High School, Wyatt has never been shy about being emotional on the court. Not in the way of fights or brush-ups, but more so in the way of letting the officiating crew know just how he's feeling. Sometimes it's verbal. Other times, it's of the non-verbal variety in the way of a funny face or expression.

"As funny as it may be, I think I have a good relationship with the refs," Wyatt said. "They say it's hard to ref me because I flip my body around and stuff like that and initiate a lot of contact, so they don't know when to call a foul or if I'm trying to fool them."

In a game earlier this season, Wyatt was clearly fouled beyond the three-point line, but no call was made and the shot went for an air ball. As he backpedaled down the floor, Wyatt looked over at the closest official and said, "I was fouled! I was fouled!"

When the official shrugged his shoulders, Wyatt said, "Why would I shoot the ball like that?"

The official smiled as if to say, 'Good point,' and kept moving.

"They miss calls, we miss shots," Wyatt said. "We miss defensive assignments. They're human. I know they're a big part of the game."

"I'm just trying to get them on my side," Wyatt added with a smile.

Wyatt has, of course, overcome some self-imposed obstacles along the way. There was his summer misstep in Atlantic City when he was arrested back in June on his 21st birthday when he allegedly solicited an undercover officer posing as a prostitute. Wyatt was later served with a $1,000 fine and community service, but Dunphy didn't suspend Wyatt because he believed he had already encountered enough embarrassment and felt he had learned his lesson.

Dunphy has playfully admitted that his star player has driven him crazy on some occasions, but he's also been quick to say he believes Wyatt doesn't have a malicious bone in his body, even though he didn't start him in three games last season due to disciplinary reasons that either centered around being late for meetings or study halls.

But before the incident this summer and the three games he didn't start last season, Wyatt had to prove to Dunphy that he could play and work hard enough at this level -- and he wasn't always successful in doing that. Wyatt played just 19 minutes as a freshman and wasn't exactly helping himself along the way.

"At the end of my freshman year, with Coach Dunph, I was really in the doghouse," Wyatt admitted. "I wasn't playing my freshman year, and it didn't help any because I wasn't trying at practice and stuff like that and I wasn't playing, so Coach Dunph was like, 'All right, whatever.'

"So coming into my sophomore year, I knew if I wanted to play, I had to do something, so I tried to work harder at practice, got Coach Dunphy to understand me a little bit more. And as time went on, Coach Dunphy … we learned to … I'm not sure of the word to use …"

Then Wyatt paused before a second before accurately summing up his relationship with Dunphy over the last three years.

"I needed Coach Dunphy," Wyatt said, "and Coach Dunphy needed me and we found a way to meet in the middle. And I'm just happy that he stuck with me and he never gave up on me, and he's given me a great opportunity."

More awards

It was also announced later in the day Tuesday that Wyatt had been named to the 2012-13 USWBA All-District II Team, which is made up of players from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

Wyatt was the only Temple player to be named to the first, second or third all-conference team. Fifth-year guard T.J. DiLeo made the five-member Atlantic 10 Academic All-Conference team. He's working on a master's degree in marketing, has a 3.81 GPA.

Practice sound bytes

Listen to interviews with Dunphy and Wyatt from Tuesday's practice here:

Khalif Wyatt

Fran Dunphy

OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.


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