Despite a dramatic upgrade to the American Athletic Conference, basketball coach Ed Conroy is guardedly optimistic about Tulane’s prospects. Look no farther than his guards for an explanation.
Starters Louis Dabney, Jay Hook and Jonathan Stark combined to average 43.6 points last season as the Green Wave exceeded low outside expectations by finishing .500 overall (17-17) and in Conference USA (8-8). Sophomore Kajon Mack returns after missing the entire year with an ankle problem. Freshman Keith Pinckney arrives after ESPN named him the best high school point guard in Georgia.
“We’re as deep as we’ve ever been in the backcourt,” Conroy said Monday before the start of Tulane’s first full-squad practice. “Getting Kajon back from injury and having the guys with all the minutes they logged last year, it’s going to be fun to watch that competition take place and see who emerges.”
Unlike last year at this time, the Green Wave has some answers. Everything was a question mark then after a mass exodus led by first-team All-Conference USA forward Josh Davis and 2011-12 C-USA Freshman of the Year Ricky Tarrant left Conroy with no returning player who averaged 3.0 points.
Dabney emerged as the Wave’s top scorer (15.2 ppg) after a torn ACL from his senior year at Riverside High limited his effectiveness in 2012-13.
Stark, a lightly recruited freshman, started every game at point guard, averaging 14.5 points and 4.2 assists.
Hook, a bit player through his sophomore season, exploded for a school-record 83 3-pointers in 176 attempts while averaging 13.9 points. His 3-point percentage of .472 ranked among the top five nationally.
The trio’s biggest adjustment this year may be logging less time on the court. Stark averaged a Conference USA-high 37.2 minutes because he had no serviceable backup.
“He is going to push me to play to the best of my ability,” Stark said. “We have a lot of competition, and that will help our team a lot. When he comes in we won’t be losing a piece at all. He will be a great asset.”
Dabney (32.4) and Hook (31.8) played a high number of minutes, too, with the Wave suffering a huge drop-off every time they sat down.
With the versatile Mack healthy again, Conroy won’t hesitate to go to his bench. After a quiet freshman year, Mack drew rave reviews during summer workouts in 2013 before suffering a freak ankle injury in August. He was cleared to play again this past April.
“With Kajon coming back, it should be real smooth for us this year,” Hook said. “We have a lot of firepower. It will be good for us to get a lot more rest.” The inability to get a breather killed the Wave several times when it could not respond to opponent’s runs. Counting the C-USA tournament, eight of Tulane’s nine losses in the league were by 17 or more points.
“We were just really fragile,” Conroy said. “Whether it was a little foul trouble or a little fatigue, we just didn’t have many options last year. This year some of those things should be minimized.”
Aside from undersized 6-foot-6 power forward Tre Drye (7.6 rpg, 6.9 ppg), the rest of the roster is less defined. Conroy is counting on sophomores Cameron Reynolds, Payton Henson and Josh Hearlihy—all of whom are 6-7 or 6-8 and weigh about 215 pounds--to make significant jumps after shaky freshman years.
Sophomore Ryan Smith is the only center with any experience.
The Wave will go as far as it backcourt takes it while moving from a one-bid league to the American, which boasts defending national champion Connecticut and perennial powers Cincinnati and Memphis.
“Everyone realizes our first year in this league is going to be one heck of a challenge,” Conroy said. “But I feel great about where our program is headed.”