If the Tulane men’s basketball team upsets SMU on Thursday night at Devlin Fieldhouse, the telling statistic likely will not come from the Green Wave’s offensive numbers.
The first place to look will be the box score for SMU’s Shake Milton, the American Athletic Conference Preseason Player of the Year.
Milton, a 6-foot-6, do-everything junior point guard, is averaging 16.7 points, a league-best 4.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds. He has scored in double figures every game, compiling a 3-1 assist/turnover ratio for the last four.
It will be up to Tulane sophomore Ray Ona Embo, a stellar defender, to disrupt his rhythm as the Wave (10-4, 1-1) tries to beat the Mustangs (12-3, 2-0) for the first time in six meetings as members of the AAC. Milton shot 15 of 44 (34.1 percent) in SMU’s three losses.
“Defense is where he (Ona Embo) leads for us,” coach Mike Dunleavy said. “He can guard size. He can guard quickness. He moves his feet well. He reads situations and gets over picks, he bodies people. He has a good combination of strength and size and the smarts to guard somebody.”
Ona Embo averaged only 6.4 points on 36.7-percent shooting as a freshman, but he was too valuable defensively to keep off the floor, starting the last 24 games. While he has improved as a scorer, averaging 9.4 points and hitting 44.0 percent of his shots this year, his calling card remains defense.
In Tulane’s conference-opening 85-75 win at Temple. he bothered point guard Quinton Rose into 6 of 15 shooting and also had three steals.
“I am able to disturb passes with my length and quick feet,” Ona Embo said. “I read the passing lanes and am pretty big for my position. It helps.”
Tulane led SMU 42-27 at the half on the road last year before falling 80-75. Dunleavy points to that game often as the start of the Wave’s turnaround under his watch, leading to two victories and two close losses in five games to close the regular season.
More people would have noticed if the Wave had held on against the Mustangs, which shot 56.3 percent in the second half.
SMU, the defending AAC champion, is a little more vulnerable this time, having lost three starters from last season, including AAC Player of the Year Semi Ojeleye. The key Thursday night will be locking down for 40 minutes instead of just 20.
“I feel like we can get a lot better (defensively) still,” Ona Embo said. “We have a lot of mental breakdowns sometimes, but we can be a really good defensive team.”
Dunleavy has heard accounts of the atmosphere around Devlin Fieldhouse when the Wave was winning big in the 1990s.
The place was sold out regularly, with fans waiting in long line for the last tickets. The crowds were raucous from the tip-off to the final buzzer. And, most significantly, the Wave seldom lost, going 90-18 at home from 1990-91 through 1996-97.
Those times are long gone—Tulane’s last significant postseason tournament was the NIT in 2000, and it has lost 24 of its 28 AAC home games while playing in front of sparse crowds—but Dunleavy hopes to re-capture some of that magic from the past.
After a disappointing loss to Tulsa in it AAC home opener, the Wave can start the process by upsetting defending champion SMU, validating it surprising victory at Temple last Thursday.
“I know we have to do our part,” Dunleavy said. “I’ve said all along we have to give you a reason to want to come. I feel like we’re starting to do that. Hopefully people are going to get that message.”
Dunleavy said the Wave acted like “fat cats” against Tulsa on Sunday coming off the win at Temple, particularly in the first half with passive play and bad shots. … SMU has lost only once outside of a strange performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, when it sandwiched a victory against then-No. 2-ranked Arizona around losses to Northern Iowa and Western Kentucky. … The Mustangs held South Florida to 14-of-50 shooting in a 79-39 rout on Sunday.