In the NCAA tournament’s first round, no player in the country scored more points than Khalif Wyatt, Temple’s senior guard with the senior-citizen skill set.
Wyatt employs, in fact, the classic “old man’s game,” crafty and resourceful but far from slick or polished. His repertoire ranges from the jaw-dropping to the head-scratching, the kind of moves you expect to see in a YMCA pickup game, not necessarily the NCAA tournament.
“You do kind of live with what Khalif gives you,” Temple Coach Fran Dunphy said Saturday. “Most of it is good. And there’s some that will drive you a little bit crazy.”
No, Wyatt won’t be a lottery pick in the NBA draft this June, but that’s hardly a reflection of what he does on the court. Perhaps no single player in this tournament is as valuable to his team as Wyatt. “As he goes, we go,” Dunphy said. And if No. 9 Temple has any shot Sunday at upsetting Indiana, the top seed in the East Region, it will be because of Wyatt and his unorthodox game.
The Hoosiers will take the court with two possible lottery picks and a handful of future NBA players on the roster. Still, Wyatt, far from the fastest or strongest on his own team, has the potential to attract as many eyeballs at University of Dayton Arena.
“Khalif Wyatt takes a back seat to no one in the country right now,” Indiana Coach Tom Crean said, “when it comes to being a complete guard.”
In the Owls’ opening-round win over No. 8 North Carolina State on Friday, Wyatt had 31 points, five assists and three steals. He did all that despite missing two minutes early in the second half after aggravating a thumb injury and playing the rest of the game through pain.
Wyatt said X-rays were negative, but he practiced Saturday with his thumb wrapped. He’s hoping he can play without restraints by tip-off Sunday.
“I don’t think it’s a huge concern,” Dunphy said. “And even if it were, he’s not going to let me take him out of a game. He wants to play.”
It’s not easy to scout Wyatt because there’s an unpredictable quality to his game and a willingness to go with his gut whenever the ball is in his hands. Confidence does not appear to be a problem.
“I don’t know the young man, but he knows he’s really good,” Crean said. “You can tell that there’s no moment that’s too big for him. The bigger the stage, it doesn’t make any difference.”
There can be drawbacks to that self-assuredness. Wyatt was a two-star recruit, playing his high school ball in Norristown, Pa. Dunphy wasn’t sure how exactly Wyatt’s game would develop, but he brought him to Temple, where Wyatt spent much of his freshman year observing.
“He was just getting used to me and me [to] him,” Dunphy said. “We didn’t hit it off all that great. . . . He had his way of doing things and I had mine. We were trying to get together on it, but he was a pain in the butt sometimes. He’ll be the first to tell you.”
As Wyatt’s relationship with the coach grew, his role on the team grew. There were, however, some bumps in the road. Last season, for example, Dunphy cited disciplinary reasons in holding Wyatt out of the starting lineup for three games, including once in the Atlantic 10 tournament. And before this season started, he made headlines for a run-in with the law. Last June, Wyatt was celebrating his 21st birthday in Atlantic City when he was arrested for soliciting a police officer who was posing as a prostitute. He was eventually fined $1,000 and sentenced to community service.
“Coach Dunphy has definitely made me — well, him and the rest of the staff, definitely — made me a better player and better person,” Wyatt said. “Definitely owe a lot to my coaches and my teammates.”
This season, Wyatt has evolved into a more consistent and dependable teammate. He finds ways to score. When his shots aren’t falling, he gets to the free throw line. In the conference tournament, he shot 1 of 8 behind the three-point arc but managed 30 points against VCU. And Friday against N.C. State, Wyatt was 1 of 7 on three-point attempts yet scored a tournament-high 31, thanks in part to 14 free throw attempts.
“Whether you score a lot of points or you don’t, you just want to make sure that you left it all out there,” Wyatt said.
Photos: Scenes from the tournament