Despite returning 91 percent of its scoring and 85 percent of its rebounding, the Tulane men’s basketball team will enter the season with one huge question.
How can the Green Wave, coming off a 17-17 year in Conference USA, handle the big jump to the American Athletic Conference with its lack of proven big men?
The short answer is no one knows. The longer answer, which coach Ed Conroy prefers, involves strength in numbers and rapid player development.
“We have to stay healthy, but by committee I think we can be more productive than what we’ve been,” he said. “We’re still not maybe where we want to go right now, but they’re all very young. I think they can develop into a solid core.”
The bar wasn’t set very high last year. Tomas Bruha and Kevin Thomas split the starting role at center, with Bruha averaging 2.8 points and 2.4 rebounds while Thomas averaged 2.4 points and 2.2 rebounds. Freshman Ryan Smith started three times but was a non-factor, contributing 0.7 points and 1.3 rebounds.
Bruha and Thomas graduated. Smith returns and is the veteran of the new crew as a 19-year-old. The other centers are freshmen Dylan Osetkowski and Stanley Roberts, Jr., plus Aaron Liberman, who played nine minutes as a walk-on at Northwestern last year before transferring and is waiting to see if his appeal for immediate eligibility is granted. If not, he will sit out the season under NCAA transfer rules.
That’s slim pickings.
At least Smith (6-foot-11, 250 pounds) is not as slender as he was a year ago, when he was overmatched inside and endured foul trouble almost every time he played significant minutes.
“Last year was eye-opening,” he said. “It was overwhelming. (In the offseason) I got stronger and I got more confidence in my game. I feel like I’m going to start this season. I’m 200 percent better.”
He will need to be. As a freshman, he committed almost as many fouls (49) as he had points and rebounds combined (50).
“He’s improved tremendously,” Conroy said. “He has much better control of his body this year. It was really helpful to get the time that he did get to stoke that fire over the summer so he knew what he was preparing for.”
Neither Osetkowski (6-foot-9, 255), who chose Tulane over Washington State and Utah State among others, or Roberts (6-foot-8. 250), who was expected to play a year for a prep school before Tulane offered him, was considered an immediate contributor in recruiting circles. They will get that opportunity with the Green Wave but still have to prove they can handle the challenge.
“I’m ready to do whatever the coaches need me to do,” Osetkowski said. “I’ll just keep competing in practice. I just have to know what to do or where to be at certain times.”
That’s the concern. With the hole at center, the Wave cannot afford to wait for its prospects — all four of whom are from California — to learn the game.
“(Osetkowski) brings good size and a really good awareness of how to play the game for a freshman,” Conroy said. “He has really good hands, handles the ball well and has nice touch inside and out. He has a bright future.”
His present, like all of the other centers, is less certain. Conroy would love to add a fourth body to the mix in Liberman (6-foot-10, 218) and expects an answer from the NCAA soon.
“We don’t know what yet will happen with that, but he can add a lot to our lineup,” Conroy said. “He’s active and athletic. He’s an energy guy. We’ve already seen the benefits of him being out there in practice.”