Temple held the first of its 10 NCAA-sanctioned practices Wednesday at the program's Pearson-McGonigle facility in preparation for a 10-day preseason European trip later this month that will take the Owls through four cities and two countries - France and Italy - and allow them to play four exhibition games against professional teams.
Seeing cities like Paris, Nice, Florence and Rome, coach Fran Dunphy and his players said, will certainly be a memorable and important life experience.
But once they sorted through some of the lighter questions about how much pizza they'll eat and how much Italian they'll learn, Dunphy's squad talked about what matters just as much about the upcoming trip - the early opportunity for a team that lost five important players from a 24-10 squad that advanced to its sixth-straight NCAA Tournament to jell as it moves into a new league, the American Athletic Conference, against teams like defending national champion Louisville.
If not for the upcoming trip, which goes from Aug. 14-23, Temple would be relegated to the handful of brief, twice-weekly, one-hour practices over a few weeks during the summer before preseason practice begins in October.
Instead, sophomores like Quenton DeCosey, Daniel Dingle, Devontae Watson and promising freshman Josh Brown will get more time to mesh with returning veterans like senior guard Dalton Pepper, junior guard Will Cummings and junior forward Anthony Lee.
"That's one of the reasons why you do it," Dunphy, who took two of his former Penn teams overseas in the past, said. "This is a critical year for us because we have a lot of inexperienced guys who haven't had that much of a chance to play college basketball, so this will get us an opportunity to practice a little bit with them and also have some different competition as we go into our regular practices in late September or early October."
When ninth-seeded Temple beat No. 8 seed North Carolina State and then almost knocked off No. 1 seed Indiana in the NCAA Tournament back in March, NBA hopeful Khalif Wyatt was doing the bulk of the scoring, but he's gone now. So are Scootie Randall, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, TJ DiLeo and Jake O'Brien.
Now it's up to players like Lee and Cummings to lead and facilitate a seventh consecutive trip to the Big Dance at a time when most preseason prognosticators will be betting against them.
"The first thing that Coach had us look at was a bracket for next year's March Madness, and we're not on it," said the 6-foot-9 Lee, the team's returning leading scorer (9.8 points per game) and rebounder (6.8 rebounds per game). "So we definitely have a lot to prove, and we've got to be smart about it, take our time and know what we have. And once we start finding good matchups and things like that, we should be able to not just sneak our way in but earn the right to play in the tournament next year."
"There are banners up there that say we went to the NCAA Tournament the last six years," Dunphy said, looking at the wall at the south end of the team's new multi-million dollar practice facility. "The issue is, are we going to be able to get back? So we'll see. That's the chore for this particular group."
Cummings, who started 32 of Temple's 34 games last season and averaged 5.8 points per game, will have to be a big part of the successful mix that would ultimately get the Owls back to the tournament. On most occasions, the speedy, 6-2 lead guard from Jacksonville, Fla., proved he could get to the rim against just about anyone, but he has to finish better and facilitate more to improve upon his 38.6 shooting percentage and 1.9 assists-per-game totals from last season.
"I think he needs to lead. I think that's the biggest issue for him," Dunphy said of Cummings. "Be as good a leader as you can be. He's not the most boisterous guy, but he has to talk a little bit more, he's got to be a great defender, and he's got to get himself into the lane and make plays and make shots. He's got a great opportunity here this year. It's sort of, in many ways, his team, so he really needs to step up."
That process, Cummings said, started this summer, and the trip to Europe will be a key piece of it.
"It's going to be very important," Cummings said. "We've got a lot of young guys this year. It's big to get them experience because they haven't really had any game experience. So it's a great opportunity for all of us pretty much to get chemistry playing with each other and take it as an overall learning experience in playing as a team and learning our weaknesses and strengths as a group."
Listen to the full interviews with Dunphy, Lee, Cummings and freshman Josh Brown here:
Assessing the roster
In addition to talking about the team's trip to Europe, Dunphy weighed in on several other topics and players on the team.
On who will ultimately have to fill the leadership void after losing five key players from last season:
"We're going to have to do it sort of by committee. Anthony Lee is going to have to step up and really score for us this year. Dalton Pepper, Will Cummings … I could go on and on. Quenton DeCosey is really going to have to score for us. It's really a critical year for us in so many ways, so we need everybody."
On what it will take for the talented but often-inconsistent Pepper to finally break out as a senior:
"I don't that I have the answer for that. It's all within Dalton, and he has every physical capability you could want. He's strong, he's fast, he's tough. He's a good jump shooter. There are a lot of really good things that he has. He just needs to put it all together, and certainly I'm saying to him, 'This is it. This is the year that you have to have because you're so important to us.'"
On sophomore center Devontae Watson:
"He's gotten better. I think that's the key to it. He's gotten stronger. He's gotten more confident. He's got more understanding of what his role is. We need him to defend and rebound, but we also need him to finish plays at the rim as well. He's got a really good knack for using the backboard, but before you can do that, you've got to catch it and get yourself to a spot where you feel confident that you can make that shot. So he's doing well."
On the competition in practice between Cummings and freshman guard Josh Brown and what Brown could contribute to Temple this season:
"He can do a lot for us. He's very competitive, very long, a good defender, can get in the lane and make plays. He's starting to make shots on a consistent basis. That may be our deepest position at this point because those two guys (Brown and Will Cummings) are playing hard against one another and we can play them together, so that will be nice."
On Watson, DeCosey and Daniel Dingle now having the opportunity to make the same leap as sophomores as players like Khalif Wyatt and Ramone Moore have in the past:
"I hope they're confident that now it's they're time. They've waited. They got frustrated like everybody else does when you don't get those immediate minutes or the great self-satisfaction right away. It's now their time, so we don't need to talk about it anymore. We need to perform."
One of the more humorous moments of Wednesday's media availability prior to practice came when CSNPhilly.com's Nick Menta said to Lee that it looked like the rising junior forward had "bulked up."
"Well, you guys know I do this all the time," Lee said, referencing his past two summer workout routines in Iowa, where his parents now reside. "So I have to go away, go home and come back and show you guys how my body looks and what I've been working on."
When a few reporters began to laugh, Lee kept a straight face.
Well, sort of.
"That's not a joke, because I know you guys get fascinated," Lee said, referring to some of the buzz he created on social media last summer when he posted a picture of his bulked-up arms on Facebook, "but it's really a lot of hard work I put into it. I try to get myself to a good size - not to show off but (because) I know I'm about to go through a long battle the whole season, so it's good to put some good meat on my body and try to help the team and help myself as well."
Lee played through a head injury during the NCAA Tournament after getting hurt against Massachusetts in the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn, and he's working through a minor groin injury now but should be good to go for the European trip.
"I just checked in, so I'm about 235, so that's really good weight. But it's good weight because while I've been back - I've been back for three weeks - I've been doing a lot of conditioning, so my conditioning is up there. So it's good weight and at the same time, I've got good air to breathe, I guess I would say, to where I can still compete at a high level."
Lee has been keeping a watchful eye on sophomore Devontae Watson, the raw but promising 6-11 center who played sparingly last season as a freshman. Pairing Watson and Lee on the floor this season, even if only for certain stretches, would allow Lee to play his more natural position - power forward.
"Devontae's coming along pretty good," Lee said. "He just needs to make sure that he always stays focused. That's just basically the main thing. Other than that, he has a lot of talent to block shots. He's the fastest guy on the team, I would say - the fastest big man, for sure. And as long as he does that, he can give us really good minutes and become a really good scorer and do some good things for us."
No bonding for Bond
Although he is eligible to practice with the team this season while he sits out in accordance with the NCAA's rules for transfers, 6-7 forward Jaylen Bond cannot play with Temple during its European trip this month and therefore will not be eligible to participate in any of the 10 NCAA-sanctioned practices that come with it.
Bond, who played at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School before two seasons at Texas, averaged 3.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 13.8 minutes per game during his two-year career at Texas. Ironically enough, one of the best games of his career came against Temple, when he collected 12 points and eight rebounds in a win over the Owls during his freshman season.
Bond has been able to participate in Temple's one-hour practices during the summer.