Back in 1938, the Temple men’s basketball team won the first-ever National Invitation Tournament. At the time, the NIT was considered the most prominent post-season college tourney. Over the years, it’s been eclipsed by the NCAA Championship, but it’s still a highly-touted competition.
That’s what Temple players, head coach Fran Dunphy, fans and alums are telling themselves, anyway. Wednesday night, the Owls face Penn State in the first round of the 2018 NIT.
With its best Big Ten Tournament run since 2011, PSU obtained a spot in postseason for just the second time in head coach Pat Chambers’ tenure. After winning 21 games, a feat that hasn’t happened in Happy Valley in close to two decades, the Nittany Lions earned the right to host Temple in State College.
The Owls, finishing with a 17-15 record after getting bounced in the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals, have missed out on four of the last five NCAA Tournaments after earning six-straight appearances from 2008 to 2013.
Here’s what you need to know before the matchup, which will be broadcast on ESPNU starting at 8:00 p.m.
Experimenting with rule changes
The NCAA is experimenting with four rule changes during the NIT:
The three-point line will be extended to international distance
The free-throw lane will be widened
The game will be four 10-minute quarters instead of two 20-minute halves
The shot clock after an offensive rebound will reset to 20 seconds instead of 30
The tournament will give the NCAA an opportunity to see how the changes affect the game for possible widespread use in the future. The NIT has been the guinea pig with rule changes in the past, and helped usher in a shorter shot clock and larger restricted area arc after the changes were first tested in the postseason tournament.
Both teams have seen NIT magic before
Neither school is a stranger to making deep runs in this tournament.
The Owls made it to the semifinals in 2015 and have two NIT titles to their name, including a win in 1969 and in that first-ever tournament in 1938.
As for Penn State, one of the few men’s basketball banners hanging from the rafters of the Bryce Jordan Center commemorates the team’s 2009 NIT title. While the team hasn’t competed in the NIT since it won in 2009, the Nittany Lions also made quite a few runs, getting to the semifinals four times from 1990-2000.
It’s a postseason rematch
The last time Penn State went to the NCAA Tournament, or even played a postseason tournament game of any importance, it was against the Temple Owls.
No. 10 seed Nittany Lions succumbed to the seven seeds in a back-and-forth battle, ending with Temple’s Juan Fernandez knocking down a mid-range jumper to take a 66-64 lead with less than a second to go.
That’s the last time these two in-state foes have met, but it was not the only meeting they’ve had in the Big Dance. After Penn State’s most recent NCAA Tournament win in 2001, an upset of No. 2 North Carolina in the second round, the Owls ended the Nittany Lions Final Four dreams with a 12-point victory during their most recent run to the Elite Eight.
Temple’s coach questioned Penn State’s recruiting tactics
After the NIT bracket was released and the matchups were revealed, Dunphy appeared to publicly question how PSU had gone about recruiting — and their attempt to entice Philly-area students out to State College.
“I do know that Patrick Chambers made a special move to make that happen as best as he possibly could,” Dunphy told the media. “We’re not going to get everybody, but nobody’s going to be more sincere and honest and to the point as the Temple staff will be.”
The Nittany Lions currently have seven Philly-based players on their roster, including regular starters Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, Shep Garner, and Mike Watkins.
Dunphy said through a team spokesperson that the comments were misinterpreted and that “they deserve a lot of credit for how they have recruited in Philadelphia.”
Key Penn State forward out with Injury
Penn State forward Mike Watkins hasn’t appeared in a game since departing late in the first half during a February matchup with Michigan. Without depth in the low post, the Nittany Lions went 2-3, including a pair of crippling losses to the Wolverines and Nebraska at the end of regular season.
Watkins, who averages 12.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, is likely out for the entirety of the NIT, according to Chambers.
Going against Temple senior forward Obi Enechionyia, who at 6′ 10″ is just as much of a perimeter threat as he is a low post power, Penn State will likely use the winning trio from its Big Ten Tournament semifinal run — Julian Moore, Satchel Pierce and John Harrar. The Penn State squad could also alternate to a much smaller lineup, featuring none of the bigs and small forward Lamar Stevens as its man in the paint.