ATLANTA - He can speak for hours at a time on any topic you'd like to discuss. His words can resemble daggers, refusing to let political correctness or a good story get in the way of the truth.
So there's no reason to doubt John Chaney's surprise at his team's unlikely rise from the ashes of defeat to the nation's elite. Quite frankly, the coach is as shocked as anyone that No. 11 seed Temple will play top-seed Michigan State today in the South Regional final at the Georgia Dome (Ch. 12, 2:30 p.m.).
Chaney, whose team has won its three NCAA Tournament games by an average of 15 points, seeks to reach the Final Four for the first time in his 29-year career.
The irony? He never thought he'd come close to having a chance this year.
"It's something that happens when you don't think it should happen," said the 69-year-old coach, whose Owls beat Penn State 84-72 on Friday in the semifinals. "We just wanted to get in the tournament and see if these guys could be lightning in a bottle."
To get here, the Owls battled an 11-10 start to the season, a seven-game losing streak from late November to mid-December and a rash of injuries that left Chaney with a seven-man rotation.
Just two weeks ago, Temple was on the verge of missing the NCAAs for the first time in 12 seasons. The Owls were down by 11 points against George Washington in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, but they recovered to snare a 77-76 triumph.
They've been dancing ever since. They beat Massachusetts in the conference finals to wrap up the NCAA bid, then they dominated No. 6 seed Texas in the first round before a 75-54 gouging of No. 3 seed Florida put them in the round of 16.
The Owls pounced on Penn State early Friday, amassing a 39-21 halftime lead on the way toward assuring Chaney his fifth trip to the round of eight in the past 14 years.
What made it all possible was Chaney's patented complement of matchup zone defenses and a plodding offense that has committed an average of just seven turnovers per game during the NCAAs.
Lynn Greer is the cool, collected point guard Chaney needs. The junior is 42-of-42 from the free-throw line the past five games, and he's averaging 20 points per game in the tournament.
"When we went on the seven-game losing streak, coach kept us together, kept our heads into it and told us it was going to be all right if we play together and do everything together," said junior center Kevin Lyde, whose team could become the first No. 11 seed since 1986 to make the Final Four.
"We just listened to what he told us, and you see it working right now."
The irony is that this was supposed to happen last year instead of now. Led by a star-studded lineup that included point guard Pepe Sanchez, Mark Karcher and Lamont Barnes, Temple went 26-5 and was picked by many to go far in the tournament as a No. 2 seed.
But the Owls ran headlong into hot shooting Seton Hall in the second round. Sparked by former Richmond Academy star Ty Shine, the Pirates claimed a 67-65 overtime victory to end Temple's Final Four parade shortly after it began.
Before this season, Chaney figured it would be late January before his team would show how good it could be.
As it turned out, he was about two months off. But Chaney isn't about to quibble with his stumble upon good and unexpected fortune.
"This is the best," he said. "It's the best because it's the most unexpected. Seven players - my God, seven usable players. Who ever would have believed it?"
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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