Mon Sep 05 09:46am EDT
Each time aching biceps or weary legs sapped Temple senior Micheal Eric's motivation in the weight room this summer, the man he's replacing as the Owls' primary presence in the paint next season offered him the encouragement he needed to persevere.
"This next set is for next year," Eric recalls ex-teammate Lavoy Allen telling him. "Remember, this is going to be your year. This is going to be your team. Work hard, and good things will come to you."
Allen's frequent pep talks resonated with Eric because he understands how vital his play will be to Temple's hopes of unseating five-time defending Atlantic 10 champ Xavier next season.
If Eric can make a full return from a patella injury that ended his junior season and provide timely scoring and consistent defense and rebounding, it will help fill Temple's void in the paint left by the graduation of an all-conference big man in Allen. If Eric proves unprepared for his increased role, then the talented, versatile perimeter quartet that returns after helping propel Temple to a 26-win season a year ago will be lacking an interior complement.
Eric is confident he can improve on the modest 7.1 points and 5.9 rebounds he averaged logging 20 minutes per game as a starter last year, but it's his defense and his ability to endure a heavy workload that is most important to coach Fran Dunphy. Allen averaged between 29 and 34 minutes per game each of his four seasons at Temple and his greatest strength was his defensive presence in the paint or on screen-and-rolls.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on Mike, but he's going to be really important to what we want to do," Dunphy said. "What's most important to us will be his defensive positioning. Lavoy was never out of position, so Mike's really got to study the game and really pay attention during our practices to make sure he's doing all the right things."
That Eric has earned the opportunity to play such a crucial role for Temple is a testament to the work ethic and perseverance of a kid who didn't grow up around basketball.
A soccer standout prior to leaving his native Nigeria to further his education, Eric didn't play organized basketball until he arrived in Pennsylvania as a high school sophomore in 2004. Friends quickly encouraged him to try the sport because of his size and athleticism, but Eric was so unfamiliar with the basics of basketball that the coach at the public school he attended that year hardly played him.
When Eric transferred to The School at Church Farm in Exton, Penn. as a junior, Coach Marc Turner instantly recognized his potential. The former Villanova assistant told Eric, "I can already tell watching you run up and down the court with your size and athleticism, you can play Division I basketball. The question is where, and that's going to be determined by how much you work."
To help Eric tap into his potential, Turner joined him at the school gymnasium for daily 6 a.m. one-on-one drill sessions designed to improve rudimentary skills such as chest passes, dribbling and proper shooting technique.
"It sounds so basic, but those are the things you have to put hundreds and hundreds of hours into in order to be proficient," Turner said. "Even though he was a junior when he got to us, I almost treated him as if he was in sixth or seventh grade teaching him some of the real basics other high school players already knew. We had to take two steps back before we could move forward."
The combination of Eric's improved skills and innate competitiveness helped him emerge as an all-league caliber player as a junior and average 19 points and 14 rebounds per game as a senior. He drew interest from a smattering of Atlantic 10 and Big East schools, selecting Temple over Saint Joseph's and George Washington in Oct. 2006 rather than wait to see if coaches from Rutgers, Seton Hall and Pittsburgh who showed interest would eventually offer scholarships.
For Eric, it was Temple's strong academic reputation, consistently formidable program and ample available playing time that made the school his top choice. For Dunphy, it was Eric's size and intangibles that made him scholarship-worthy.
"He wasn't an off-the-charts athlete, but he was a good athlete whose work ethic and team-first mentality were big pluses," Dunphy said. "He was very raw, but he was coachable and he did whatever was asked of him. You could just see he'd be able to grow as he got older and more mature in the game."
Despite sitting out as a true freshman because the NCAA clearinghouse found issues with his transcripts from Nigeria, Eric has made Dunphy look smart for having faith in him. He has reshaped his body in the weight room, cut the junk food and pizza from his diet and improved his points, rebounds and blocked shots per game each of the past three seasons.
Eric was playing the best basketball of his career late last season when a fractured right patella suffered during a mid-February practice sidelined him the rest of the year. He could only watch helplessly on the bench as the Owls fell in overtime to San Diego State in the second round of the NCAA tournament after eking out a 66-64 victory over Penn State two days earlier to end Dunphy's record 11-game March Madness losing streak.
The knee is close enough to fully healthy already that Eric is confident it will not hinder him at all once the new season starts. His biggest concern is restoring his conditioning to the level it needs to be for him to be able to play 30 minutes a game without getting winded.
"It feels like starting over from scratch," Eric said. "Right now, there's no pain in my knee, but it's just a matter of getting to that 100 percent feel. It's not there yet, but it's coming."
That's good news for a Temple program that lacks proven depth behind Eric in the frontcourt but returns a wealth of top talent on the perimeter.
Ramone Moore averaged a team-high 15.2 points per game and showed a knack for getting to the rim or hitting from the perimeter. Juan Fernandez didn't have the breakout junior season some expected, but he proved he can be a big-stage scorer by sinking the game-winner against Penn State in the NCAA tournament. Scootie Randall is Temple's emotional leader and most efficient guard and Khalif Wyatt emerged last season as a capable defensive stopper.
The lone question mark in the eyes of most prognosticators is Eric, but he's determined to prove he's healthy and ready for more responsibility.
"It's exciting because I can actually play the kind of basketball Coach Dunphy has been trying to teach me for four years, but at the same time I have a lot of pressure on me," Eric said. "I have to produce every night for my teammates and I have to be in the right spots and in the right condition. That's a lot to handle, but it's exciting for me to see how good I can be."
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer