A year after stunning Memphis in the first week of American Athletic Conference play, the Tulane men’s basketball team needs a repeat in the worst way.
The Green Wave (7-6), which has not beaten anyone in the top 200 according to RealtimeRPI.com, can brush out that bad taste with a second consecutive victory at noon Tuesday at the FedEx Forum.
“I can’t wait for these guys to get back to practice,” coach Ed Conroy said after Tulane dispatched Southern Miss 59-40 in its last conference tuneup Dec. 22. “We’ve got a young team, and we’re really starting to understand how you have to practice and how the focus has to be. We have a high ceiling. We are going to keep improving all through the year.”
The Wave opened with an embarrassing home loss to Alabama A&M, struggled past Drake in overtime, barely beat UNO and needed more than 30 minutes to pull away from winless Prairie View. Tulane was competitive but came up short against Georgia Tech and Mississippi State, teams that are predicted to finish near the bottom of their leagues.
The struggles came as Conroy tried to blend five freshmen and two transfers into his playing rotation, so growing pains were expected. As evidence of the Wave’s potential, he can point to a blowout of Appalachian State (when Tulane took a 40-8 lead) and a school-record comeback from a 26-point deficit to beat two-time defending Southland Conference champion Stephen F. Austin.
A win over Memphis, though, would mean much more. The Tigers (8-3) are expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the AAC, and the league’s coaches picked Tulane last.
Last year, Tulane failed to build on its 74-66 shocker Jan. 3 at Memphis, finishing 6-12 in its inaugural trip through the AAC while scoring more than 60 points in regulation only three times in its last 17 games.
This time, Conroy feels like he has the firepower for better results with transfer starters Malik Morgan and Jernard Jarreau, senior Louis Dabney, sophomore Dylan Osetkowski, the return of injury-plagued Cameron Reynolds and Kajon Mack plus the highest-rated freshman class in his six-year tenure.
“The league is going to be really good, but we’re a team that can get to a level where we can compete with anyone,” Conroy said. “There are very few times that we don’t put five guys out there that can score.”
Here is what the Wave will be facing in the AAC:
No. 17 SMU (11-0), one of five unbeaten teams in the nation, would be drawing more attention if it were not barred from the NCAA tournament. Even if coach Larry Brown guides the probation-tagged Mustangs to the regular-season title, they cannot participate in the conference tournament.
No. 22 Cincinnati (8-3), which has lost to No. 9 Butler, No. 6 Xavier and No. 11 Iowa State, relies on balanced scoring and tenacious defense. Four Bearcats average between 11.8 and 10.0 points.
Connecticut (8-3), which tumbled from NCAA champion in 2013-14 to the NIT last year, is one spot outside of The Associated Press Top 25. The Huskies will play without shot-blocking center Amida Brimah (broken finger) for the next five to seven weeks. Guard Rodney Purvis averages 15.2 points and has scored in double figures every game.
Tulsa (8-4), which returned all five starters from a second-place team in the AAC, began with a promising victory against then-No.9 Wichita State but has been up and down since. The Golden Hurricane will go as far as tremendous starting guards Shaquille Harrison (17.9 ppg) and James Woodard (16.0) can carry it.
The second tier
Memphis, which missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in five years, is counting on former Tulane guard Ricky Tarrant, a graduate transfer from Alabama, to emerge from a shooting funk. Second on the team in scoring (13.5), he has hit only 33.3 percent of his shots overall and 29.8 percent of his 3-pointers.
Houston, in its second year under former Oklahoma and Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson, is 9-0 at home with an overtime victory against LSU. But the Cougars have been kittens in their three games away from Houston, losing to Rhode Island and Grand Canyon and beating Wyoming in overtime.
Temple (5-5), which plummeted to 9-22 two years ago before rising to 26-11 last season, has lost to five top-100 opponents and beaten four teams below No. 250.
The cellar dwellers
Central Florida (6-4) and East Carolina (8-5) have no wins against the RPI top 125. South Florida is 3-10 with losses to Troy and Delaware.