Defense rests, but Owls survive Charlotte

Twenty-two games into the season, here is what we know so far of this Temple basketball team.
On Wednesday night at a typically half-full Liacouras Center (the announced crowd was 4,785), the Owls held on down the stretch and beat a pretty good Charlotte team, 89-88, and improved to 15-7 overall and 4-4 in the Atlantic 10.
Senior guard Khalif Wyatt, as he usually does, led the team in scoring. This time, the 6-foot-4 senior and the A-10's leading scorer dropped a game-high 25 points on 7 of 12 shooting and 10 of 13 from the free throw line. He managed the game well at times with four assists, didn't manage it well at other times with five turnovers, but otherwise carried his team with 18 second-half points.
Senior forward Jake O'Brien, as he's prone to do, got hot from outside. This time, he scored a season-high 22 points on 8 of 10 shooting and a near-perfect 4 of 5 from three-point range. He swiped five rebounds, added two assists and a block and didn't turn the ball over, but he did get beat defensively on a few occasions in the low block.
Which brings us to the next point about what we also know about this team.
Unless Fran Dunphy's squad can commit to playing better defense - or any defense, for that matter - and learn how to close out games like a team with three seniors in its starting lineup should, it might be doomed to playing the same brand of maddening, inconsistent basketball that could leave it dangerously close to missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, Dunphy's first season at Temple.
A three-pointer at the buzzer by Henry Pierria made the final score look just a little closer than it really was in the closing moments, but the Owls' warts and blemishes are there for even the most optimistic, glass-half-full fan to see.
Temple allowed Charlotte (17-5, 5-3) to shoot an inexcusable 60.4 percent from the floor, including 63 percent in the second half and 7 of 10 from three-point range. Those are staggering numbers any way you slice it.
Teams are shooting a healthy 43.1 percent against the Owls. The last time they defended this poorly was during that 2006-07 season when they didn't make the NCAA Tournament and permitted teams to shoot at a 44.2 percent clip.
But this team has more talent than Dunphy's first Temple squad. No, there's no lockdown perimeter defender like Ryan Brooks this time around, but everyone on this team with the exception of the three freshmen has NCAA Tournament experience. And although they escaped with a win Wednesday night, the Owls know they simply aren't going to win most nights when allowing a team to shoot 60 percent.
After the Owls played some defense and got some stops early on en route to building a 13-point lead almost seven minutes into the game, they watched it evaporate by halftime. And after leading by as many as 10 points at 84-74 with 3 minutes, 2 seconds left to play, they almost blew the game completely by committing five turnovers in the last 2:47.
Senior forward Scootie Randall, who has been inconsistent all season, managed to cough up three of those five turnovers. He had twice as many turnovers (four) as points (two).
So what, exactly, is going on? How did things almost come completely unraveled in the closing moments?
"We didn't handle their pressure too well down the stretch," Wyatt said. "I take a lot of blame for that. Some decisions I made were just bad. It was just real sloppy. Had some non-catches and some bad decisions, but we'll learn from it. Nobody's really pressed us like that, so we're all right. We'll learn from it."
But will they? And wouldn't conventional wisdom suggest that teams will pressure Temple like that in the future now that those last three minutes of film are out there?
The players have said this stuff before, but the learning never seems to take place, or at least often enough to suggest the Owls are ever going to be out of the woods with this stuff and look more like the team that beat then-No. 3 Syracuse three days before Christmas at Madison Square Garden.
And what about this ailing defense that seems to be getting worse as opposed to better? What can be done there?
"Obviously Charlotte shot it very well," Dunphy said. "Some of that is them, a lot of it is us. So our defense really needs a lot of work at this point. We've really got to do our work early on the post-up guys. We're struggling with that."
"We've got to find a way to get our defense much more solid," Dunphy added.
But, especially at this juncture of the season, how?
"Just keep working," Dunphy insisted. "I've got no secrets. Just keep working at it, watch a little bit of film of what Dayton (Saturday's opponent) did at St. Joe's tonight, of course, and see how St. Joe's defended them. … But it'll be a tough task for us. We're not a very good defensive team at this point. We need to get it back a little bit."
Or a lot.
At times, Dunphy has given minutes to at least two of his three promising freshmen in Quenton DeCosey and Daniel Dingle. But despite his 6-11 frame, his 92-inch wingspan and a high school career that saw him block 1,000 shots, Devontae Watson has appeared in just four games and played a grand total of 10 minutes.
Watson came to Temple as a raw post player, and defense is about more than just blocked shots. But at this point, with 6-9 center Anthony Lee - who's really more of a power forward than a center - getting virtually no help in the paint, couldn't it be worth a shot to give Watson some playing time to find out if he can at least alter a few shots?
Is he just not ready?
"Devontae's working real hard at it, but he's just not quite ready yet," Dunphy said. "But it's coming. It's coming. Every day is a little bit better. Again, he would have helped us defensively the way we played tonight. Anybody would have helped us defensively."
Charlotte shot 57.7 percent in the first half and got 20 points in the paint and 10 off turnovers. After Wyatt scored off the glass to give Temple a 37-31 lead with 2:58 left in the first half, Charlotte forward Chris Braswell scored the game's next six points and went on his own personal 10-4 run to close out the first half and tie the game at 41-41. Just before the halftime buzzer, he got the ball in the paint and scored easily over the 6-10 O'Brien.
When it was all said and done, the 49ers outscored the Owls in the paint by 44-30.
Beyond the defensive lapses, there were also more inconsistencies Wednesday night, both in the production and the lineup itself. Sophomore point guard Will Cummings got off to a good start in the first half, shooting 3 of 6 en route to getting seven points, three rebounds and three assists in 16 minutes. But in nine second-half minutes, Cummings took one shot - a three-pointer - and missed it and contributed one more assist and one more turnover.
The 6-5 DeCosey hit a pretty pull-up jumper in six first-half minutes and then never played again. The 6-7 Dingle, who played six minutes at St. Joe's Saturday, didn't play at all.
Guard TJ DiLeo did test his sprained ankle in four brief minutes. Although he took just one shot - a missed three pointer - and recorded an assist, Temple will need him to continue to get healthy because he has become the team's top perimeter defender.
The one player who could possibly be coming out of what has been a season-long funk is junior Dalton Pepper. After the West Virginia transfer went scoreless in five first-half minutes, the 6-5 guard reeled off a season-high 11 second-half points, collected a pair of three-pointers and two assists and did not turn the ball over.
Without his contributions, Temple would not have won the game.
"I was happy for Dalton. Very, very happy for Dalton," Dunphy said. "He made some big shots and made some really good plays. We need Dalton. No question about it."
But Temple also needs Randall, and what they're getting is a player that has struggled with consistency and maybe confidence as well. After missing last season while recovering from torn meniscus cartilage, Randall came storming out of the gate with a career-high 31 points in the season opener. Since then, the 6-6 fifth-year senior has been held to single-digit scoring 10 times.
After breaking out of his slump last week with 21 points in 38 minutes in a win over Richmond, Randall shot 2 of 8 in 37 minutes in last Saturday's loss at St. Joe's. And in the closing moments Wednesday night, he simply couldn't hold on to the basketball.
Why, a reporter asked, has it essentially been a story of two steps forward, two steps back for Randall?
"You're asking me that question, and I have no idea," Dunphy admitted. "I don't have the answer. If I had the answer, we'd sit down and say, OK, here's the answer. Now you'll be making shots, you're getting shots, you're more confident.
"I don't have (the answer). I wish I did. I wish I could help him more than I am right now. He's a fifth-year senior, he deserves to be out there. He's worked hard enough at it. Right now he's got to play better than he's playing."
And, for that matter, so does everyone else. Otherwise, games like Wednesday night will continue to be the norm more than the exception, and Temple won't always be able to get away with it. editor John Di Carlo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.