Duke and Temple play Wednesday for the 26th time. Duke leads the series 16-9, having won the last seven. Temple's most recent victory was in 1996.
It's been a few years since Temple was considered an elite opponent. But that is a recent development. Temple's basketball tradition is impressive, not quite at the level of the widely-recognized top six-- Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and UCLA-- but clearly in the next tier. Temple began the 2007-'08 season in sixth place in total wins, ahead of both UCLA and IU. Of course, Temple started its program back in 1894-'95, which is the earliest of any program in the top fifty in wins. UCLA, by contrast, didn't start playing until 1920.
The one thing that is missing from Temple's resume is an NCAA title. But that's a little misleading. Temple does have a pair of NIT titles. The most recent was in 1969, a time when the NIT was second-fiddle to the NCAA Tournament but still competitive in the quality of teams. Temple beat Boston College for the title after BC made the title game by defeating Army in the semifinals. Army was coached by Bobby Knight and captained by Mike Krzyzewski.
But Temple's first NIT title was in 1938 and that's one to hang your hat on. This was the first year the tournament was held and one year before the inaugural NCAA Tournament. Temple's 60-36 win over Colorado in the championship game was considered one of the more impressive displays of fast-break basketball seen up that time. By comparison, Duke's highest total in 1938 was 52 points, against Davidson, and Duke won the Southern Conference title that season.
Temple has participated in 25 NCAA Tournaments and 17 NITs. That's 42 post-season appearances in 69 years. Last season's 12-18 mark kept Temple home for the first time since 1983. The Owls have advanced to the Final Four twice, in 1956 and 1958. That 1958 team was led by guard Guy Rodgers, who later became an NBA all-star.
Temple won the 1958 Eastern Regional by beating the same Maryland team that had knocked top-seeded Duke out of the ACC Tournament. Earlier in that decade Temple was led by All-American Bill Mlkvy. Yes, his nickname was the "Owl without a vowel."
Fifty years is a long time between Final Fours. Despite his impressive career, long-time Temple coach John Chaney was unable to survive to the final weekend before his retirement following the 2006 season. He came tantalizingly close numerous times. In 1991 Cheney took a 10th-seeded Temple squad to the East Region finals, where they lost 75-72 to North Carolina. Two years later they made it to the West Region final game but fell to Michigan 77-72. Temple was an 11-seed when they advanced to the 2001 South Region finals, where they lost to Michigan State 69-62.
On two occasions Krzyzewski's Duke team sent Chaney home in regional finals. One was a surprise, one wasn't. Duke's 1999 juggernaut steam-rolled Temple 85-64. Trajan Langdon made five of six three-pointers on the way to a 23-point performance and was supported by Elton Brand's 21 points and 8 rebounds, William Avery's 13 points, and Chris Carrawell's 12 points and 7 rebounds.
But Temple was the juggernaut when they squared off against Duke in the 1988 East Region finals. The top-ranked Owls were 32-1, their sole loss by a single point to UNLV. Temple was led by sensational freshman Mark Macon, a 6'4" scoring machine from Saginaw. Macon came into the Duke game averaging 21 points per game and drawing comparisons to such notables as Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. He was that good.
But not on that Saturday afternoon. Duke did a superb job of scouting Macon. Defensive stalwart Billy King forced Macon into places he didn't want to be, doing things he didn't want to do. King had plenty of help, from Kevin Strickland, Robert Brickey, sometimes even from big man Danny Ferry. But King did the bulk of the work and produced a defensive masterpiece. Flustered and frustrated, Macon kept putting up bad shots and kept missing; he ended the day 6-29 from the field. Temple didn't have anyone to take up the slack. Tim Perry matched Macon's 13 points, while point guard Howard Evans added 12 points, with four turnovers. King's classmate Kevin Strickland was almost as effective on the defensive end, helping hold sharp-shooter Mike Vreeswyk to 2-12 shooting.
But Duke had almost as much trouble scoring against Temple's size and trademark zone defense. Perry, a physical and athletic big man, was a particular problem. He would block six shots and turn every trip into the lane into an adventure. But Ferry was equally relentless, scoring 20 points, almost all inside the paint. Strickland provided most of the perimeter scoring, hitting a trio of three-pointers and scoring a game-high 21 points. Duke pulled away down the stretch for a 63-53 win and Mike Krzyzewski's second Final Four.
The two programs have had some compelling regular-season games in recent years. On February 27, 1994 eighth-ranked Temple visited second-ranked Duke. Temple had a trio of future NBA players, Eddie Jones, Aaron McKie, and Rick Brunson. The game had a sub-plot, as Duke retired Grant Hill's number 33 that day. Hill had 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 steals, while his roommate Tony Lang led all scorers with 16 points. Current Duke assistant coach Chris Collins hit four three-pointers and scored 13 points.
On the other end of the court, Duke's defense held Temple's big three to 12-50 shooting and won 59-47. Jones, one of the finest pure shooters of the '90s, was harassed into a 4-15 game.
Collins and Steve Wojciechowski were on the floor for that 59-58 defeat in 1996. Collins, in fact, led all scorers with 22 points, including six three-pointers but it wasn't enough, as Duke's starting front court made only 5 of 26 field goal attempts.
Duke and Temple played twice in Duke's 2000-'01 title season. The first meeting occurred in Madison Square Garden, in the championship game of the pre-season NIT. Duke wasn't sharp and trailed most of the game. Carlos Boozer bailed out Duke, making 10 of 14 field goals and scoring 26 points in the 63-61 win. Boozer was Duke's only double-figure scorer and the rest of the team made only 12-45 from the field, including 8-27 from three-point range.
The teams met barely a week later in Philadelphia and the Duke brought their A game this time, winning easily, 93-68. Temple held Boozer to 8 points in the rematch but Jason Williams, Shane Battier, and Nate James scored 30, 18, and 14 respectively. Duke shot 62% from the field and made 17 of 30 three-pointers, a spectacular performance against a team that prided itself on not giving up points.
Veteran coach Fran Dunphy took over the Temple reins when Chaney retired. Dunphy has tried to maintain Temple's traditional toughness, while switching from Chaney's zone to a man-to-man and increasing Temple's offensive tempo. Temple went 12-18 last season, the first losing season since 1983 and the fewest wins since 1976. Temple is 6-6 this season and will enter their game against Duke as a sizeable underdog.
But that's on paper. Maybe Temple will channel its inner Bill Mlkvy and pull off a big one. It won't be the first time for a storied program.