Khalif Wyatt's airplane imitation at the 73 victory over Duke on Wednesday night was perfect symmetry.
The Owls are ready to soar. And so is Saint Joseph's at the onset of an Atlantic-10 season that is shaping up to be far more competitive than originally thought.
Wyatt's 22-point night underscored Temple's offensive veracity, attacking Duke's pressure with opportunistic precision, pounding the offensive backboards (five offensive rebounds from Anthony Lee) and aggressively penetrating the paint (in a rare sight, the Blue Devils shot less free throws than their opponents).
Each time the Blue Devils made a second-half charge, and there were several spurts of energy after a Coach K timeout tutelage, Temple stood its ground, swinging back with the controlled aggression that's the trademark of a veteran, well-coached team, and the envy of the out-of-control Xavier Musketeers, who hit faces instead of threes last month against Cincinnati, leading to bad PR and a three-game slide.
Wyatt's punches were to the heart, draining two daggers in the second half just as Duke began to see the top of the mountain. In the end, it was the signature victory that will play well in March, and the staple of Fran Dunphy's well-schooled outfit. The Philadelphia legend has made a living slaying Goliath, beating top 10 foes in four straight seasons (Tennessee, Villanova, Georgetown and now Duke).
The Owls conquered the mighty Blue Devils without a great scoring night from star guard Juan Fernandez, who finished with just four points but did contribute six assists and four rebounds. Instead they placed five players in double figures, shot 56 percent from the floor and turned 16 Duke turnovers into 21 points.
Temple now sits at 10-3 with two tourney-worthy wins on its resume to date (Duke and Wichita State), as well as several solid W's in Big Five play against Villanova and Penn. It begins conference play this weekend against Dayton with its league championship prospects bigger than anyone would have imagined in mid-December. Since then, Xavier has won just once against five losses and began its own conference season with a 10-point setback to La Salle.
The Atlantic-10 is wide open, and another Philadelphia team may vie with the Owls for top billing. Saint Joseph's is off to an 11-4 start and came out of Duquesne with an 84-82 overtime win in the conference opener. The Hawks don't have Temple's quality wins, but they have beaten Georgia Tech, Penn State, Villanova and (at the time) 17th-ranked Creighton, while suffering narrow losses to Seton Hall (which just beat UConn) and nationally-ranked Harvard.
Success has risen from balance and efficiency. Saint Joseph's sits 18th nationally in field goal percentage and comes at defenses with four double- digit scorers, led by junior guard Carl Jones. Then there is the uplifting story of C.J. Aiken, an imposing presence in the paint who overcame childhood cancer to play a pivotal role on head coach Phil Martelli's revival tour.
5 THOUGHTS FROM THE WEEK THAT WAS
1. Who is the only player nationally averaging a double-double? North Carolina's John Henson, who is posting 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, stats inflated by the Tar Heels recent five-game romp. North Carolina has outscored its last five opponents by nearly 32 points per game ahead of its conference opener against Boston College.
2. How efficient is Missouri? The Tigers hold the second spot in offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and lead the nation in field goal percentage. That doesn't seem like a big deal until you realize that Missouri plays four guards, which means a higher degree of shooting difficulty. Marcus Denmon and Kim English are both shooting over 50 percent on the season and combined to make 15-of-24 shots in Tuesday's 87-49 romp over Oklahoma.
3. The chic (and also very deserving) pick for National Coach of the Year to date is Indiana's Tom Crean, but Georgetown's John Thompson III may be getting more out of his players than any other coach around. The Hoyas won at Louisville, then stormed back from 17 points down to outlast Marquette. Veterans Jason Clark, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims lead Georgetown, but outside of the core, the Hoyas are a young group that has bought into Coach Thompson's precise offensive construction and defensive scheme. The Hoyas rank 15th nationally in defensive efficiency, have held every team but one (Memphis in overtime) under 70 and nine of their first 14 opponents under 60.
4. I tweeted (yes I tweet, and you can follow me at @jtrex0830) this week about the nation's most surprising teams, and in my estimation, Virginia heads the list. The Cavaliers edged LSU (a quality road W) on Monday and head home to face Miami in search of their 12th straight victory. The Cavaliers are off to their best start in nearly three decades because they value the basketball, slow down games and make it difficult for opponents to score (13th in defensive efficiency). So in essence, the same magic head coach Tony Bennett worked at Washington State is finally rubbing off on the Cavs.
5. Wisconsin never loses at the Kohl Center. Correction, the Badgers never used to lose in Madison. They have lost three straight at home, capped by a 63-60 setback versus Michigan State. The culprit? A reliance on a perimeter game that has gone cold. Wisconsin was the 13th-best three-point shooting team in the nation through its first 14 games, but has made just 8-of-50 in its last two games. The percentage is putrid, but the number of attempts is even more staggering. The Badgers need some inside production from Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren to help offset the shooting struggles of Ben Brust and Jordan Taylor. The good news is that Taylor did get back on track with 28 points in the loss to the Spartans.
A LOOK AHEAD
There is no Fine 15 this week due to the New Year's holiday and this column coming out later in the week, but have no fear, the poll will return on Monday in its usual spot. Over the next three months, we will start to incorporate a Bubble Watch into the column and what I'm calling the Bracket Racket (chatter from some of the nation's top prognosticators) as the season wears on.
The calendar has flipped and conference season is here as teams begin putting together their NCAA Tournament resumes in earnest.