The Tulane men’s basketball team is in transition again, but this move is more palatable.
A year after rebuilding a roster bereft of proven talent, coach Ed Conroy has traded that internal challenge for the external challenge of entering a tougher league. The task of playing in the American Athletic Conference is much easier with the players accounting for 91 percent of the Green Wave’s scoring back from 2013-14.
“I don’t think there’s any question it’s the most depth, the most competitive practices and most physical practices we’ve been able to have since we’ve been here,” Conroy said. “It is really fun to go out there and have great, competitive cycles. All of the returning guys had a great summer, and even though we’re still an extremely young team, I’ve seen great improvement.”
Outsiders have noticed. Speculation that Tulane would struggle to win any game in the AAC, which boasts defending national champion Connecticut as well as power programs Memphis and Cincinnati and big-name coaches Larry Brown at SMU and Kelvin Sampson at Houston, has disappeared in favor of more positive publicity.
The Green Wave is picked as high as sixth — by Athlon’s —in the 11-team league after finishing a surprisingly high seventh in 16-team Conference USA. “I feel like we can go way higher than that honestly if we do what we are supposed to,” said junior guard Lou Dabney, who averaged a team-best 15.2 points last season. “We have a great team, an athletic team and a team that knows the system already.”
Tulane returns its three-headed starting backcourt of Dabney, long-range shooter Jay Hook and point guard Jonathan Stark, who combined for 43.6 points last year. Starting power forward Tre Drye, a senior who averaged a team-high 7.6 rebounds, is back, too, along with sophomore reserves Payton Henson, Cameron Reynolds and Josh Hearlihy.
Also in the mix are redshirt sophomore Kajon Mack, who missed 2013-14 with a foot injury, and promising freshman Keith Pinckney, the top point guard prospect in Georgia according to ESPN.com.
“It’s good to have basically everybody coming back and to get a fresh start,” Hook said. “It would have been a little rough last year in this conference. I’m just glad at our persistence and how we came together as a team, and now we’re going on a new journey.”
That journey will include playing in front of a television audience for 16 of 18 conference games — either ESPNU, ESPNews or CBS Sports Network — a dramatic contrast to their virtual invisibility in Conference USA. They welcome the exposure.
“That’s great,” Dabney said. “We can show people that we can actually compete with the bigger and better teams.”
They failed in that department last year, losing every game they played against teams that finished in the top 150 of the RPI, and by an average of 20 points. With almost everyone back, though, they feel the lessons they learned will pay off in a big way, particular defensively. Only one player on the roster, Drye, had logged significant minutes in 2012-13.
“Our defense wasn’t where it needed to be most of the games because we were so young,” Dabney said. “Now we all know the system, we all know what we need to do, and that makes you a lot better as a defensive player when you know your teammate has your back and he knows where to be.”
The flip side is the Wave won almost every close contest it played, developing confidence in pressure situations. Its record in games decided by 10 or fewer points was 12-3, but the self-belief crumbled in the face of early deficits.
Conroy believes that problem will disappear with a deeper bench and better experience.
He no longer has one point guard in Stark. He has two with the addition of Pinckney. Where he had only three scoring options last year, he hopes to have as many as eight this time.
“We were so fragile in certain games depending on foul trouble,” he said. “The games could get away from us fairly quickly. This year we can dictate tempo on both ends of the floor better. Any time you are the team that can dictate tempo because of depth and athleticism, that affords you the opportunity to play with all different types of opponents.”