For proof of how uncompetitive the Tulane men’s basketball team has been in the American Athletic Conference, look no further than its abysmal record at home.
In two seasons under former coach Ed Conroy and one under Mike Dunleavy, the Green Wave is 4-23 against league foes at Devlin Fieldhouse. That’s right 4-23, and the first two victories required overtime. The Wave needed 25 home games before it outscored anyone in regulation, clobbering South Florida in February.
This year could be different. Tulane (9-3) already has won three more times than in all of 2016-17 entering its conference opener at Temple (7-4) on Thursday night. Although none of the victims is in the top 100 of the RPI, the Wave itself has jumped more than 100 spots to exactly 100th since the start of the season.
The website RealtimeRPI.com forecasts an 11-7 finish in the AAC and a tie for third behind newcomer Wichita State.
While no one else is that high on Tulane, which was picked 10th out of 12 teams by the league’s coaches in October, Dunleavy liked what he saw in nonconference play. The Wave’s only losses were in road games against 13th-ranked North Carolina, No. 24 Florida State and Georgia State, which is expected to contend for the Sun Belt Conference title.
“That (9-3) was a number if you told us before the season that we could write it in, we would have taken it,” Dunleavy said. “There were a lot of positives in that stretch.”
Three Tulane players average double figures in points and two more are really close in a balanced offense.
Swingman Melvin Frazier earned Louisiana Sportswriters Association Player of the Month honors with a spectacular November. He has cooled off a bit, but still averages a team-best 16.8 points on 58.1 percent shooting with a team-high 6.7 rebounds and AAC-best 29 steals.
Right behind him is versatile forward Cameron Reynolds, who averages 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. He has a varied offensive skill set that features 3-point shooting, post-ups and a midrange game.
Post player Samir Sehic, a good finisher around the basket with outside shooting potential, averages 10.8 points off the bench in only 18.5 minutes. UNLV transfer Jordan Cornish, a powerful 6-foot-6-guard, averages 9.9 points with a team-best 47 assists. Point guard Ray Ona Embo averages 9.8 points.
Freshman guard Caleb Daniels, whom Reynolds predicted would be one of the best players on the team by the start of conference action, broke out with 12 points and a pivotal go-ahead three-point play last Thursday against South Alabama.
The question is whether Tulane will be overmatched on the interior in the AAC. Center Blake Paul, the Wave’s lone legitimate post defender, averages only 4.8 points.
Eighth-ranked Wichita State (10-2) and No. 21 Cincinnati (11-2), the class of the league, rank among the nation’s top 15 in rebounding margin and are bad matchups. The Shockers have not been sharp recently, but they just welcomed back 2016-17 leading scorer and rebounder Marcus McDuffie from a foot injury that sidelined him for the first 11 games.
Cincinnati, an NCAA tournament participant for seven straight years under coach Mick Cronin, responded to a stunning 50-49 loss at home to Tulane in 2014-15 by beating the Wave by at least 16 points in their past four meetings.
The next tier of SMU (10-3), Temple, Central Florida (9-3) and Houston (10-2) could present problems for Tulane, too.
SMU, the defending AAC regular season champion, already has beaten then-No. 2 Arizona and then-No. 14 Southern California.
Temple, up and down in AAC play under longtime coach Fran Dunphy, handed Clemson and Auburn what remain their only losses of the season at the Charleston Classic in November.
UCF, which reached the NIT semifinals in March under coach Johnny Dawkins, has not been at full strength since losing leading returning scorer B.J. Taylor to a foot fracture in the opening game. If he returns as scheduled near the start of AAC play, the Knights will be formidable with 7-6 center Tacko Fall (13.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks) occupying the middle.
Houston, which features AAC leading scorer Rob Gray (20.7 points per game), beat Tulane by a combined 43 points in two meetings last year.
The rest of the league appears vulnerable, including traditional powers Connecticut, which has lost five times by a combined 104 points and had back-to-back overtime victories against Columbia and Monmouth, and Memphis, which was picked ninth after an exodus of players before coach Tubby Smith’s second year.
For the first time, Tulane might not flop once AAC games begin.
“We’ve grown up as a team,” Dunleavy said. “When we play the right way, we are really good.”