Coming of age
When the Providence School basketball team won its third Florida Class 3A state championship in five years last month, Will Cummings went to Twitter.
"Congrats to my high school, Providence, winning the State Championship!" Cummings tweeted less than three hours after the Stallions were crowned state champions.
Cummings helped lead the Providence School to its first state championship in 2010, his junior year. It's where he was first recruited by Temple assistant coach Dave Duke and where he built the foundation for the player he is today.
Five years later and close to 900 miles north, Temple's senior point guard and best all-around player will be honored on the program's Senior Day when the Owls wrap up their regular season Saturday against defending national champion UConn (2 p.m., ESPN2) at the Liacouras Center.
In addition to beating the Huskies and keeping Temple's NCAA Tournament resume intact, the 6-foot, 2-inch lead guard said he has another goal in mind.
"Our goal right now is to win the conference tournament," Cummings said of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, which begins next week in Hartford, Conn.
Evolution of a leader
The Owls (21-9 overall, 12-5 American Athletic Conference) faced a tricky game Thursday night on the road at East Carolina. It was one they were supposed to win, and a loss to a team with an RPI of 222 would have put a sizable dent in Temple's season and squarely on the wrong side of the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble.
And after a slow, sluggish start in Greenville, the Owls came back and finished off a 70-56 win with Cummings once again playing the role of the catalyst. He tallied 16 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals with no turnovers in 39 minutes.
As for UConn, Temple dealt the Huskies a 57-53 overtime loss the last time the two teams met on New Year's Eve. Cummings had a rough shooting day - 2 of 10 from the floor - but affected the game in other ways with seven assists and four steals, and he knocked down two free throws to put the game on ice in the closing seconds.
"At the end of the game, I want the ball in his hands," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "I want him getting fouled at the end of the game because I have great trust in him going to the foul line and making those big, big shots that are available to him."
Cummings is averaging a team-high 13.8 points and 4.2 assists per game heading into Saturday's game. And during a season in which Temple has completely flipped the script by defending extremely well to compensate for a struggling offense that has too often lived and died by the 3-point shot, Cummings has consistently been the one player who can get to the rim and earned a team-high 184 trips to the foul line, where he's knocked down 77.7 percent of his free throws.
But like past Temple guards, Cummings had to bide his time before emerging as the go-to player in the backcourt. He averaged 1.4 points and 6.3 minutes per game as a freshman while playing in the shadows of standouts like Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez.
But Cummings said sitting on the bench, in hindsight, was a learning experience.
"You play against them every day in practice," Cummings said, "and just learn how they do stuff and take some of their moves that they use to put into your game."
From Wyatt, who almost made the 76ers roster as an undrafted rookie free agent and now plays professionally in Israel, Cummings said he learned a lot.
"He definitely knew different ways of how to create contact," Cummings said. "He was good at that."
Even though Cummings played sparingly as a freshman, Wyatt saw a lot of potential in his new teammate.
"Even as a freshman," Wyatt said, "he was trying to lead by example, finish first in sprints - or second behind Rahlir (Hollis-Jefferson). He always worked hard, always was confident. Even when he wasn't playing, he wanted to play and felt like he could help the team and had the right approach.
"Just like a lot of Fran Dunphy recruits, his role just kept increasing and increasing to where he is now."
Cummings and Wyatt are different players, but Cummings has been just as important this season as Wyatt was in past seasons. When he injured a ligament in his left leg and did not return in a Jan. 10 game against Tulsa, Temple lost. Cummings wasn't himself four days later, played hurt, and the Owls lost to SMU.
And three days later, with Cummings out of the lineup completely to rest the injury, Temple got run off the floor by 31 points at Cincinnati.
"They're definitely a totally different team when he's not on the court," said Wyatt, who has watched games online while playing overseas. "Even when he gets subbed out, they're a totally different team."
When he returned five days later, Temple routed USF, 73-48. Three games later, against that same USF team in Tampa, Cummings scored a game-high 19 points and became the 50th Owls player to surpass the 1,000-point mark for his career.
"It's a great feeling just seeing everybody that came to your games in high school there again, Cummings said of that night. "It's just great being able to go there and play well in front of them."
Although four years and two more state titles have passed since Cummings last played high school basketball in Florida, Providence School coach Jim Martin said he will never forget his former point guard.
"Will is one of my favorite all time players," Martin said.
In sunny Florida, baseball and football kept Cummings outdoors, but it wasn't until Cummings switched from public school to private school that Martin realized Cummings' full potential on the hardwood.
"He just looked like he was always faster than everybody else that was out there," Martin said. "He looked like he changed gears faster than anybody else. He looked like he had an extra gear on how quick he was with his moves. He could always get to the basket and score."
The Providence School welcomed Cummings as a sophomore. Martin and the Stallions were on pace to an undefeated record before Cummings suffered an injury that forced him to miss the final 10 games of the season and into the playoffs, where they were ousted.
The following season, Cummings teamed up with former standouts Stacey Poole and Patric Young (who went on to play at Kentucky and Florida, respectively) to reel off a 31-1 record and the school's first state title.
During his senior year, Cummings drew his team closer to another state championship before First Academy drilled a buzzer beater to defeat the defending state champions.
"He almost singlehandedly led us to another final four," Martin said. "We just didn't have enough around him his senior year. The last game we lost he was double teamed the entire night and he still had 26 points. He literally did it off the double team."
Cummings, as it looks now, was a bit underrated in terms of his recruitment, garnering mostly mid-major offers while also getting interest from programs like Stanford and Boston College. He choose Temple because he wanted to be in a major city and because he felt comfortable with Duke and Dunphy.
"They just kept it real with me and said I would have to earn everything and that's what I kind of wanted," Cummings said.
Four years later, Cummings is the go-to player and the team's unquestioned leader.
"He plays with such a focus and determination," Martin said. "Sometimes you don't even know the score when you watch him - his demeanor never changes. He is just trying to be productive on the next play, whether its defense or offense, whether he makes a shot or misses a shot. He moves on to the next play."
"He used to just have one speed and just go fast and be really athletic," Wyatt added. "He's turned that into switching speeds and finding guys and he really knows how to play the game and settle things down when he needs to."
In his final home game, Cummings has another opportunity to fill Temple's campus with some excitement. Students will be filing back to campus from spring break, and many of them were probably part of the large group that flooded the court after the Owls steamrolled over then No. 10 Kansas at the Wells Fargo Center back on Dec. 22.
Without that signature win, Temple would be in a far more precarious position heading into Saturday's game and the conference tournament.
"Just to see the excitement it brought to the university," Cummings said, things of the Kansas win, "was a pretty good feeling."
Regardless of where and when Temple's season ends, Cummings said he has hopes of playing the game long after he graduates.
"After I graduate, I am going to continue to play basketball," Cummings, a management information systems major, said. "After basketball, I am going to do something computer-wise like making websites."
Dunphy has always said he's never been a fan of Senior Days. Although Temple will have games to play after Saturday, it's the start of saying goodbye.
Before Temple and UConn tip off, Dunphy will greet Cummings, Jesse Morgan, Jimmy McDonnell and Nick Pendergast at halfcourt with their families. The veteran coach will have his reasons for missing all four players, and he'll have plenty of reasons to miss Cummings.
"He is a solid citizen. He is a solid student. He is a solid basketball player. He is a solid man," Dunphy said. "I think that is going to be my most memorable piece, that I have coached a good guy who has cared about his teammates, cared about his university and done the very best he could have done."