Does it seem as if Cornell head coach Steve Donahue and Temple head coach Fran Dunphy would rather play the ’95 Chicago Bulls than square off against each other in the NCAA tournament? Regardless of their close friendship, Donahue’s No. 12-seeded Red and Dunphy’s No. 5 Owls are slated for a 12:30 p.m. tipoff Friday afternoon in Jacksonville, Fla.
Prior to taking the reins at Cornell (27-4, 13-1 Ivy) in Sept. 2000, Donahue spent 10 years as an assistant coach at Penn under Dunphy. Dunphy ultimately took over the Temple (29-5, 14-2 Atlantic-10) program in 2006, but the two Philadelphia area natives have kept close contact. It is not unusual for these friends to speak to each other three or four times a week during the season.
“If you had asked me the team [I] don’t want to play the most, I would have said ‘Cornell’ for a lot of different reasons,” Dunphy said. “I didn’t really want to coach against Steve Donahue. I just did not want to do that. [The selection committee] love[s] storylines, and I think that’s what happened. I just think [Cornell is] a terrific basketball team. I watched them a number of times throughout the year, and I think Steve does a great job. They have great balance and great veteran leadership. That’s a tough combination.”
“My initial reaction is I’m disappointed to play a guy who has been my mentor for 10 years and is an extremely close friend,” Donahue said. “We would never play each other in the regular season, and that being said I thought when they won the A-10 regular season, and they won the A-10 tournament, that they’d be at least a 4 if not a 3. And I was thinking that we’d probably be a 12, maybe 11. Unfortunately it falls that way, personally; I don’t think that should bother our guys or anything.”
Donahue was not the only one who has expressed surprise at Temple’s No. 5 ranking. The Owls are flying high of late, riding a 10-game winning streak and capturing their third straight A-10 championship with a narrow 56-52,win over Richmond on Sunday afternoon. Many prognosticators predicted a three or four seed for Temple, which accumulated the second-most overall wins (29) in school history, including an impressive 75-65 upset over the then-No. 3 Villanova Wildcats on Dec. 13.
The 12 seed is an upgrade from the last two years in which Cornell was a 14 seed and forced to leave the East bracket. Cornell is looking to improve on its recent tourney record of being a one-and-done squad, having lost 77-53 to Stanford in 2008 and 78-59 to Missouri in 2009. In fact, it has been 12 years since the Ivy League representative, Princeton over UNLV, 69-57, has tasted victory at the Big Dance. Despite its underdog status, a 12 seed has upset a five seed in 19 of the last 21 March Madness tournaments. As a further sign of respect, the Las Vegas bookies have installed the Owls as a mere four-point favorite.
Temple is led on offense by sophomore guard Juan Fernandez, who was named the A-10 Tournament's Most Outstanding Player after averaging 16.3 points per game over the course of the Owls’ three tournament wins.
“He’s our best playmaker, so in a game like [on Sunday] against Richmond, where it just comes down to making plays, he’s the guy that’s going to be most prominent,” Dunphy said. “He doesn’t force the issue. When you need him, then he will step to the front. When the pressure gets turned up, and the defense is so difficult to score against, that’s when he shines.”
In the post, Temple’s junior forward Lavoy Allen has turned into a double-double machine for the Owls this season, averaging 11.5 points and 10.0 boards per game. However, it is the 6-9 big man’s defense that earns the praise of his head coach.
“I probably talk about Lavoy on the defensive side more than I have of any of our players or any player that I’ve had,” Dunphy said. “His defensive positioning is extraordinary. I don’t ever remember him getting out of position. I’m sure he has over his career, but it’s so seldom that you don’t even think about it. You just expect him to always be in the right spot, not only to take care of his own work, but to cover up some of his other teammates as well. He changes shots. He’s not a prolific shot blocker, but he’s an outstanding rebounder.”
Temple earned its highest ranking since the Owls entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed in 2000 due in large part to their tenacious defense. The Owls are ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense. The difference in the game might turn out to be Cornell’s shooting prowess from beyond the arc. Temple has held its opponents to a miniscule 27 percent from 3-point range while the Red ranks as the best 3-point shooting team in the country, sinking just over 43 percent of its shots.
“Fran Dunphy’s teams are going to do a couple things: they’re going to play extremely hard, extremely intelligent, they’re not going to hurt themselves,” Donahue said. “They’re going to know what you do. ... They’re going to guard us as well as anyone in the country, so there’s not going to be any surprises. [We’re] going to have to play well, [we’re] going to have to go out and play our game and make sure we do as good a job as we can.”
Cornell enters the postseason enjoying a seven-game winning streak. In fact, its last defeat came on Feb. 12 at the hands of another Philly squad, as the Red was upset by the Penn Quakers. The Red and the Owls have endured similar fates over the last three seasons. Both teams enter Friday’s contest as consecutive three-time conference champions. Both teams were ousted in the opening round of the last two NCAA tournaments. Both teams are hungry for a taste of postseason success, but only one will be dancing come Friday evening.