In its last of six home games to start the season, the Tulane men’s basketball team shot 62.9 percent in the first half and nearly 54 percent for the game against Tennessee Tech. Yet, the Green Wave still trailed Tennessee Tech by a point with 3:30 left before closing with an 8-0 run.
The defense the Green Wave played Sunday likely won’t get it done on its first road trip. When Tulane (5-1) faces Loyola-Chicago (4-1) on Wednesday night in Chicago, the first order of business is clogging up the lane.
“We have to improve on the defensive end,” sophomore point guard Jonathan Stark said. “We gave them too many easy buckets. They got a lot of buckets at the rim against our conversion defense. If we stick to our cues, we’ll be fine.”
Coach Ed Conroy has stressed defense from the start of the year because of Tulane’s increased depth. In 2013-14, with Stark playing nearly every minute of every game and backcourt mates Louis Dabney and Jay Hook also logging long stretches on the court, the Wave finished near the bottom of Conference USA in field-goal percentage defense (.443).
With a 10-player rotation that has kept everyone fresher this year, Tulane has improved the percentage to .425, but that number still is the second-worst figure in the American Athletic Conference.
The issue is not 3-point shooting, where opponents are hitting a paltry 27.8 percent. It is preventing penetration.
“(Conroy) was very hard on us in practice (Monday),” Stark said. “We went over it, we drilled it and we drilled it some more, so I think we got better at it.”
Loyola (4-1), which finished last in the Missouri Valley Conference a year ago, is coming off road victories against UTSA and Kent that eased the pain of an 87-52 loss at Michigan State. The Wave rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit to beat the Ramblers 65-59 at Devlin Fieldhouse last season, with Dabney and Stark each scoring 25.
Tulane hopes to take an easier path to victory this time. Despite the closeness of Sunday’s win against Tennessee Tech, Dabney labeled the performance a confidence-booster.
Tulane received its customary balanced scoring. Stark, Dabney and Jay Hook all had between 11 and 14 points. Sophomore center Ryan Smith added 10 points, six more than his previous career high.
“We shot the ball really well,” Dabney said. “Of course, coach got on us for the little mental breakdowns we had, but overall we pulled together and finished the game off strong. We relied on a team effort and got 100 percent out of everyone. I feel real good about our chances to win our first road game.”
The tallest player in Loyola’s rotation is 6-foot-7 forward Montel James, so Tulane will not face a size disadvantage for once. The pivotal factor figures to be slowing down versatile 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Milton Doyle, who had 27 points and eight rebounds against UTSA and followed with nine points, seven rebounds and seven assists against Kent.
Doyle led Loyola in scoring and assists last year. He paces the Ramblers in scoring, assists, steals and blocked shots this season, while his 5.0-rebound average is just shy of the team high of 5.2.
“We have a good player we’re playing against, and this is a big game for us,” Hook said. “It’s a big test. It’s going to show how deep our team really is and how consistent our team really is.”
Hook, who shot 45.5 percent from 3-point range last year, is searching for that same consistency this season. He has hit only 12 of 33 treys through six games, including a 1-for-5 day against Tennessee Tech.
“They’ll start to go in,” he said. “It’s just a little slump in shooting, but they are going to fall in as the season plays out.”