Friday November 5th, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- Periodically during the season, Juan Fernandez will collect a stack of game DVDs from Temple's video coordinator and ship them to Rio Tercero, Argentina, for review. His father, Gustavo, was a 16-year pro in their home country -- a point guard who earned the nickname "Lobito" (translation: little wolf) when he was the lone star on a club team with a wolf mascot. When Juan emerged as a promising point guard on junior club squads, "Lobito" became his nickname, and his father's was upgraded to just "Lobo," or wolf.

This season's footage will be of particular interest to Gustavo, who's now a pro assistant coach in Argentina, because Juan will be the Owls' full-time starting floor general. He was moved off the ball -- "It felt strange for me to play shooting guard," he says -- as a sophomore starter for the Atlantic 10 champs, but with Luis Guzman graduated, Fernandez is assuming what he believes is his natural position. Of the transition, his father told him, "Just remember how you used to play. It's something that you never forget how to do. It always stays with you."

The question is whether Fernandez's offensive numbers -- he's the Owls' top returning scorer (12.3 ppg) on a team that doesn't always put up points with ease -- will dip while he assumes the full burden of running the show. It could be a smooth transition: He did play some point last season, and was in frequent playmaking positions on the wing, leading the team in assists (3.6 per game). What he lacks in speed, he makes up for in court vision and an ability to make nifty, one-handed dishes in the lane. But his three-point percentage jumped from 35.3 as a freshman to 45.3 as a sophomore, in part due to the ways Temple was able to free him up for open looks. Will Fernandez still get as many quality shots in this new role?

"That's TBD," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "A lot of it is going to have to do with how the guys around him score." The first player Dunphy named, after saying that, was junior Ramone Moore, a 6-foot-4 slasher who briefly stepped into the starting lineup last season when Fernandez was suffering the aftereffects of a concussion, and proceeded to lead the team in scoring six times during a seven-game A-10 stretch.

Moore is now locked in as the starting shooting guard, but his handicap last season, when he averaged 7.6 points, was an inability to hit threes. He shot just 12.5 percent from beyond the arc and defenses knew to sag off him. While Fernandez was working with the Argentine national team in the summer, Moore, a Philadelphia product, went to Houston to train with his sister's boyfriend, Rockets guard Kyle Lowry, and returned with more complete offensive game. Moore's shooting mechanics looked much improved -- he was 4-of-9 from long range in the practice I saw Monday -- and he said he'd adopted some of Lowry's scoring mentality.

Fernandez believes that if Moore makes threes, a breakout year could be imminent. "I told Ramone that maybe he's going to have to be our leading scorer," Fernandez said.

The Owls' preseason has been about these kinds of subtle shifts and uncertainties in the backcourt. They know they have the talent to win the A-10 again and improve on their first-round exit from the NCAA tournament. They have an elite defensive big man in 6-9 senior Lavoy Allen, who pulled out of the NBA Draft in April. They have strong defensive principles instilled in them by Dunphy, who's meticulous about teaching correct positioning in his helping, man-to-man. Last season, Temple (29-5) ranked fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency. The Owls know Fernandez and Moore can score; they just need to see Fernandez score effectively from the point, and Moore score enough to serve as an offensive leader. And they need to see both those guards, along with whoever starts at the three, put in the same level of defensive effort that Guzman and Ryan Brooks, their lockdown specialist, did to make them an elite team in '09-10.

"That may be the biggest thing for us," Dunphy said. "Replacing Guzman, who knew he was going to stay on the court [by defending], and Brooks, who took pride in trying to shut down people, or at least bother them to the point where they didn't have their best game."

There have been some promising signs in the past few weeks. Allen said that in a closed scrimmage against Penn State on Sunday, Moore did an impressive job of guarding Talor Battle, who's one of the Big Ten's best scoring guards. Temple was often carried by its three-point defense last season, holding opponents to 28.5 percent, the third-lowest rate in the nation. Dunphy said he's been pleased with Fernandez and Moore's dedication in that area, especially since he once considered both of them to be defensive liabilities.

During a film session that preceded Monday's practice, Dunphy stopped the tape after a nice defensive possession and turned to Moore. "Ramone," he said, "I think you played as hard as you could defensively there. You're starting to get it."

• Allen, who played on USA Basketball's college select team this summer, is an interesting character. He's a smooth big man with a nice jumper (teammates have occasionally called him "Big Sexy") who seems more comfortable in the face-up, pick-and-pop game than he is backing down opposing posts. He only shot 88 free throws in 1,207 minutes last season, and he's often criticized for having a "passive" demeanor. But he puts in significant effort on the glass (with great OR/DR percentages of 12.2 and 23.7) and makes intelligent decisions defending the paint while staying out of foul trouble.

Allen is also capable of some all-conference-level sarcasm. He told me that it takes trash-talk to truly get him riled up, and when I asked him which opponent ran its mouth the most last season, he said, "Ironically, it was the guys from Seton Hall."

• The single biggest thing holding back Temple's offense, which ranked 77th nationally in efficiency last season: Its ratio of free-throw attempts (533) to field-goal attempts (1,942) was abysmal. Only eight teams in D-I -- Sacred Heart, Illinois, Toledo, Presbyterian, Bryant, Dartmouth, Eastern Kentucky and College of Charleston -- had lower ratios, and none of those teams ranked in the top 60 nationally in offensive efficiency, either.

The low fouls-drawn-per-40-minutes rates of big men Allen (3.1), Michael Eric (3.5) and Craig Williams (2.0) are a major issue. The A-10's best NCAA tournament team from last season, Xavier, got much better fouls-drawn rates from frontcourt players Jason Love (4.7), Jamel McLean (5.3) and Kenny Frease (3.2), not to mention that guards Jordan Crawford (4.6) and Tu Holloway (5.0) were excellent whistle-drawers as well.

"We don't take it to the rim hard enough or strong enough or appropriately enough," Dunphy said. "We're not an attacker-of-the-rim kind of team, but we've talked about it, and hopefully we'll get better at that this year."

• A great Dunphy line, while encouraging Eric to finish stronger after receiving a slick feed from a driving Fernandez: "Mike, when Juan makes a pass like that and you don't finish, it's like reaching in his chest and taking his heart out."

• When the Owls are assigned push-ups and sit-ups in practice, Dunphy often joins them, and this is a source of amusement to his players. "He's going to hurt his back like that," I heard one of them say, laughing, as he watched Dunphy gingerly do a set of 15 push-ups, with his whistle tapping against the floor.

"They all bust my [butt] about it," Dunphy said. "They say I don't go down far enough."

• Senior forward Craig Williams was one of the bystanders in practice this week, alternating between riding a stationary bike and using a bone growth stimulator on the fifth metatarsal of his right foot, which he fractured while playing in St. Croix (his home) this offseason. The fracture didn't get diagnosed until he returned to Temple -- Williams initially thought he just had a sore foot -- so he didn't have surgery until September, and said he'll likely be sidelined until December.

Heart and soul: Moore. The Owls are in a weird place, in that they have no clear, alpha-dog leader, and their two most prominent players -- Fernandez and Allen -- aren't, as Dunphy would put it, "vociferous." Dunphy would like Moore to grow into the heart and soul role, and Moore appears ready to do it in his fourth year with the program. "He's a Philly guy, and everyone on this team likes him and respects him," Dunphy said. "Plus I think he understands what being a leader is about."

Most improved: Sophomore combo guard T.J. DiLeo. He was essentially a non-factor as a redshirt freshman last season, buried on the bench behind Fernandez, Moore and Guzman, averaging 1.1 points in 6.4 minutes per game. Playing for Germany's entry in the European U20 championship this summer, though, DiLeo averaged 10.7 points in 27.3 minutes, scoring 20 against both the Czech Republic and Netherlands. He said the confidence gained from playing extended minutes -- "because I haven't done that for two years, since high school" -- should help him break through in '10-11. He's earned his way into a backup point guard role, capably running the offense in practice while also serving as a decent long-range threat.

Glue guy: Allen. He's about as high-profile as Glue Guys get, in that he was named the A-10's preseason Player of the Year. And Temple would like its 6-9 power forward to be far more aggressive on the offensive end, after averaging 11.5 points and 10.7 rebounds as a junior. ("There's no way Lavoy shouldn't average 20 and 10 every game this year," Moore said.) But at heart, he's a defensive anchor, and when he does get the ball on offense, he thinks like a playmaker, posting assist-to-turnover ratios of 1.62 and 1.57 the past two seasons. It's not in his personality to take over games -- "I've always been a laid-back guy," he said -- but he still manages to be immensely valuable.

X-factor No. 1: 6-6 junior guard Scootie Randall, who appears to be the favorite to start in Brooks' vacated "3" position. Given the value Brooks had as a lockdown defender, it's imperative, Dunphy said, "that Scootie be a great defensive player, not a good one, and he's gotta make open shots, too." Randall will often be placed in the corner in the Owls' offense, waiting there to receive kick-outs from Moore or Fernandez when defenses collapse on their drives, or from Allen when he's doubled in the post. Randall was a 41.9 percent three-point shooter (13-for-31) in limited action last season; if he can shoot that well in extended minutes, he'll be a major asset to a team that's in need of perimeter offense.

X-factor No. 2: Watch out for Khalif Wyatt, a 6-4 shooting guard who only played 1.9 minutes per game and attempted four threes as a freshman last season. He might be the best pure shooter on the team (he hit 6-of-12 threes in scrimmage-like conditions in the practice I saw) and could be used off the bench to kick-start the offense on occasion, or even spot-start in place of Randall. The only thing holding Wyatt back, it seems, is that he doesn't consistently play D to Dunphy's exacting standards.

Bottom line: The Owls should be the class of the A-10 for the second straight season. They have a strong enough defensive foundation to avoid slipping too much from a 29-win season in '09-10. To be considered a real threat in the NCAA tournament, though, they'll need to show offensive improvement. Moore needs to be a better all-around scorer; Fernandez needs to continue to get good three-point looks while running the offense; and Allen needs to force himself to be more of a bull in the paint. If those things happen, Dunphy might just have the first Sweet 16 team of his career.

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