If Tulane stops a two-game skid by beating Houston on Wednesday night at Devlin Fieldhouse, it will be a big leap forward for the Green Wave (11-6, 2-3 American Athletic Conference) and a step back for the AAC’s NCAA tournament prospects.
A third of the way through the schedule, seventh-ranked Wichita State and No. 12 Cincinnati (Associated Press poll) have separated themselves from the rest of the league, combining to go 9-0 with all but two of the victories by double digits.
Cellar dwellers East Carolina and South Florida have separated themselves in the opposite direction, combining to go 1-10 with all but one of the defeats by double digits and the lone win by the Pirates against the Bulls.
The other eight teams make up the massive middle, leaving the seventh-ranked RPI league in college basketball without a surefire third NCAA tournament participant if they keep beating each other.
Houston (14-3, 4-1) appears to be the best candidate, but it cannot afford many slip-ups because of a non-conference schedule ranked 253rd in the RPI calculations of WarrenNolan.com. After facing Tulane, the Cougars play host to Wichita State and travel to Cincinnati in two of their next three games. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Houston as one of his last four teams in his tournament field projections on Monday, so the Cougars still have plenty of work to do.
Temple (8-9, 1-5), which lost at home to Tulane in its conference opener, boasted the strongest out-of-conference results of any AAC team with November victories against SEC-leading Auburn, which has not lost to anyone else, and Clemson, which has lost to only other opponent.
But the Owls are below .500 overall, representing the topsy-turvy nature of the AAC by halting SMU’s 33-game home winning streak and losing to everyone else it has played.
Then there are these circular results--Central Florida beat Memphis, which beat Tulsa, which beat UConn, which beat Tulane, which beat Temple, which beat SMU, which beat Central Florida.
Tulane coach Mike Dunleavy is optimistic about the potential for a turnaround after tough losses to Memphis and UConn. The Wave’s schedule should help, too, with four games against East Carolina and South Florida and only one apiece against Wichita State and Cincinnati.
“There’s really not anyone we’ve played in conference that I felt like was way better than we are and we have no shot,” Dunleavy said. “If we play our game to our abilities, we have a chance to win every game.”
Dunleavy was hard on his players after the 96-89 loss at Memphis last Tuesday, saying they allowed the Tigers to get whatever they wanted offensively and on the boards while no one was willing to take a charge on their constant drives.
He felt much better about the effort in Saturday’s 67-57 loss to UConn, but his players were hard on themselves.
Senior forward Cameron Reynolds shot an air ball on a 3-pointer in the first half after making two treys in a row and immediately looked at Dunleavy, apologizing on his way back down the floor.
“I took a bad shot, and then they go on a run,” Reynolds said. “It’s all preventable.”
Dunleavy pointed to two turnovers that led to easy baskets for UConn in the second half after Tulane cut the deficit to 33-32.
“Those are situations I wouldn’t say are the norm for us,” he said. “In a tight game you have to be better.”
Tulane is billing the Houston game as “Blackout Wednesday,” with fans encouraged to wear black for the 7 p.m. tip on ESPNews. … The Wave coaches will wear light green apparel as part of a “Fight for Literacy” night. … Houston, which was picked sixth in the AAC preseason poll, has the league’s leading scorer, guard Rob Gray (19.1 ppg) and the second-highest scoring team in the AAC (80.1).