I've been letting my thoughts on the Temple-Syracuse game slow-cook for a few days because I wasn't really sure how I wanted to write about the Owls' win. But now I think I have a pretty good idea. So if you'll indulge me, here goes.
Watching Fran Dunphy coach against Jim Boeheim for the first time ever struck a very particular chord for me. The matchup is one that I've wanted to see for a long time, going all the way back to the first season I covered college basketball in Philadelphia.
It was the 2002-03 campaign, and you probably remember that it was a pretty good one for Syracuse. It was also a good one for Dunphy, as Penn ran the table in the Ivy League and was rewarded with a NCAA Tournament game in Boston.
That day was a 24-hour whirlwind, as I took the train up and back to watch Penn play Oklahoma State at the arena then known as the FleetCenter.
The first half of the afternoon doubleheader featured Syracuse and Manhattan. Syracuse was a powerhouse squad, led by Carmelo Anthony and Philly native Hakim Warrick. It went on to win the national championship.
Not surprisingly, the entire upper deck of the New Garden was covered in orange – and not of the Oklahoma State variety. Most of them stuck around after the first game to see which team they'd face two days later.
Fran Dunphy's squad that season was one of the best he ever had on 33rd Street, led by Ugonna Onyekwe and Andy Toole. The big contingent of Penn fans that traveled north honestly believed the Quakers were good enough to upset the Cowboys, and set up an encounter that could have come out of a science lab.
We all know that that at its best, Fran Dunphy's offense is a joy to watch; and we all know that that at its best, Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone defense is a nightmare to score against.
But in addition to Toole and Onyekwe, Dunphy had two key cogs to a potential zone-busting machine in guards Jeff Schiffner and Tim Begley. They were good enough to hit shots from long range that could cause the Orange some trouble.
Of course, that matchup never happened. Oklahoma State throttled Penn's backcourt en route to a 77-63 win. Onyekwe scored 30 points in his final college game, but he simply had no help.
It would be nearly a decade before two of college basketball's best tacticians finally shook hands on a hardwood floor. This past Saturday, Fran Dunphy and Jim Boeheim finally coached against each other for the first time.
Lo and behold, Dunphy came out on top. Although Temple nearly threw the game away with some prevent-style offensive sets in the final minutes, the Owls got the win in just the way I had hoped to see.
Especially in the second half, Dunphy's offense routinely found holes in Syracuse's defense, and created a lot of good looks. Whether with Anthony Lee inside or Khalif Wyatt and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson outside, Temple moved the ball very well.
The Owls hit the shots they were given by Syracuse's zone – including all those free throws off of fouls down the stretch. Combined with Syracuse's silly offensive fouls and turnovers at the other end, you can fairly say that Temple outsmarted the Orange in addition to outshooting them.
The first half was played efficiently by both teams: Syracuse averaged 1.172 points per possession to Temple's 1.126. But the Owls were better by a wide margin in the second half, averaging 1.205 points per possession to the Orange's 0.999.
Here's a telltale sign: Temple recorded 15 points on 23 made field goals in the game, while Syracuse recorded 10 assists on 29 made field goals.
I asked Dunphy after the game about how he set up his players to deal with Syracuse's zone. He admitted that "it's not easy to do."
"I think we tried a lot of combinations over the last few days to try to get some post players to flash to the foul line and then make plays from there," Dunphy said. "To get it to the middle of the floor is not easy with the size and length that they have, but I thought our guys did a good job of passing the ball and coming to the ball."
Dunphy later tried to equate Boeheim's 2-3 zone to John Chaney's old matchup zone. That might send shivers down a few fans' spines, but there is one thing the two systems have in common.
"You get some looks and they appear to be open, but they're not quite as open as you think they are," Dunphy said.
Given how poorly Temple played against Canisius and Alcorn State, to get the offense playing at the level necessary to beat Syracuse definitely took some work.
"We were able to get the ball to the high post in the middle of their zone," Hollis-Jefferson told me. "Once we got it there, we made good decisions passing the ball and finding open teammates."
We hear the phrase "good decisions" a lot when talking about Dunphy's teams. His motion offense demands not only crisp passing, but also smart thinking by players both on and off the ball.
Suffice to say that there was not as much smart thinking in Temple's last two games as there was Saturday.
"The reality is, I don't know that we would have won today had we not lost on Wednesday, to be quite frank," Dunphy said. "We got a little bit of a comeuppance against Canisius."
The national story was that Temple, nominally a mid-major because it doesn't play in the Big East (yet), beat a top-10 team for the fifth year in a row. It helped, of course, that said team was Syracuse, which considers Madison Square Garden a second home.
(As I wrote Saturday, the thousands of Orange fans in attendance would gladly tell you as much.)
But anyone who's seen the Owls under Dunphy – and frankly, under John Chaney before him – knows better than to offer such backhanded compliments. For as Dunphy said, "we've been here before."
"I like our team," he added. "We don't always do the right thing all the time, but I like our team."
On Saturday, his team did the right thing a lot of the time. And even though Dunphy hadn't been to Madison Square Garden since moving from Penn to Temple, his team definitely played like it had been there before.