NEW ORLEANS — Before the start of the 2012-13 women’s basketball season, the Conference USA coaches selected Tulane as the favorite to win the league title this year.
But a relatively weak schedule and an unexpected home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette on Dec. 19 might have some doubting the Green Wave’s ability to fulfill such a lofty prediction. With Tulane launching its conference schedule at 7 p.m. Thursday at home against SMU, national pundits and polls are ranking C-USA foe UTEP higher than the 11-2 Green Wave heading into league play.
But the Green Wave is viewing the situation not as disrespect, but as a challenge to make good on the C-USA coaches’ preseason vote.
“UTEP is a really good team,” said Tulane sophomore forward Whitney Bibbins, a former University High star who is leading the Green Wave in scoring with 15.5 points per game. “But you just have to respect every team in the conference, from the lowest-ranked to the highest. You have to go out every night and play your game and do the best you can.”
The latest Associated Press poll gives UTEP, which is 12-1 after beating several quality opponents, six votes, while Tulane received none. The USA rankings allotted the Miners three votes, and the NCAA Division I RPI listings place UTEP 37th and Tulane at 141st, even though the Green Wave has gone 4-0 since the ULL defeat.
Green Wave coaches and players acknowledge that the Miners played a tougher preseason schedule than Tulane, including a win over previously unbeaten Kansas State, but they said the conference season wipes the slate clean and allows C-USA teams to prove their mettle against each other.
“We’re excited to get started (with C-USA play),” Tulane coach Lisa Stockton said. “We’re still a pretty young team, and I think we surprised some people by being chosen to win the conference. UTEP may be rated ahead of us, but we’ve got a good win streak going, and we’re 11-2 going into conference. And we can’t be too down or too high. We have to take it one game at a time.”
Stockton said the Wave is gradually getting stronger on defense and more efficient on offense, which hopefully will bode well beginning with the contest tonight against the 9-4 Mustangs.
Tulane sophomore guard Danielle Blagg said her squad has moved on from the Lafayette defeat, which ended Tulane’s in-state winning streak at 15, and is fully prepared to attack its conference foes and show what it can do.
“We’re definitely ready,” she said. “That was a very disappointing loss, but since then, we’ve got a nice winning streak going. And I think we’re bringing a pretty good team into conference.
“Being the top (preseason C-USA) pick is definitely an honor, but whether you’re picked No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3, you have to perform every game. I’d rather be No. 1 than No. 2 or No. 3.”
Looming on Feb. 7 is a home clash with the Miners, who defeated Tulane in last year’s C-USA title game and who were picked second in this year’s preseason poll. But the Wave still has seven games before that showdown of favorites, and Tulane is trying not to take any game for granted. That begins tonight with the Mustangs.
“We’re playing with a lot of intensity, and we’re really focused on the conference season,” Bibbins said. “We’re really energized for it. We’re ready to play our game, and we’re ready to play our game against everybody.”