When Tulane women’s coach Lisa Stockton thinks about her team making the NCAA tournament last season, her mind goes to the challenging preconference schedule.

“That got us in the tournament,” she said. “We handled it well. We beat some of those teams early, and they wound up being conference champs. We beat Miami, N.C. State, teams like that, and it really helped us when our name was on that table as an at-large team.”

Tulane again has an ambitious schedule before American Athletic Conference play begins Dec. 30. Tulane plays Sun Belt conference champion Arkansas-Little Rock at home in its opener Friday, as well as at Florida State then at home against LSU among its first four games.

“Florida State may be a team that goes to the Final Four this season, and LSU has been a good SEC team for a long time who will beat you up, get physical with you,” Stockton said. “My biggest thing is how we handle this adversity, how we handle this challenge. If it’s good, then great. If it’s not good, how do we rebound back and become a better team?”

Last season, Stockton had five seniors. This year, she has two, most notably center Chinwe Duru. Stockton is interested in seeing how junior point guard Leslie Vorpahl handles not only the intense competition but also her role as a leader, particularly at her position.

Although the opening group of games pose the most difficult challenges, Stockton said a key stretch will come after that. The Green Wave will play in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, from Nov. 26-28, facing Rutgers, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Virginia.

“I think it’ll be how we recover after St. Thomas,” she said. “Are we a better team after two weeks? When you deal with such a young team, you’ve got to see development.”

There still are questions concerning rebounding and shooting. However, with six newcomers, that isn’t where the biggest improvement needs to take place.

“We’ve got to bring the whole team with us,” she said. “Right now, I feel we’re two segments. We’ve got the veterans, and we’ve got the rookies. We have to get them to keep up with the intensity and understanding the system, all of that.

“If we can get them to do that, we’ll have some depth. We’ll have some scoring options, so that will be key for us.”

Meredith Schulte, a 6-foot freshman forward, has impressed Stockton that she will be a scorer off the bench to help sophomore shooting guard Kolby Morgan and the other starters. Harlyn Wyatt, 6-2, may be the first player off the bench and has shown she’s physical, athletic and capable of blocking shots and running the court for baskets.

The difficult schedule will afford junior-college transfer point guard Shakira Harding the opportunity to get experience behind Vorpahl. When conference play begins, the Wave will face athletic teams from top to bottom who pressure the ball. Having a good backup point guard would go a long way toward Tulane having a successful season.

Stockton said the Green Wave started slowly an the exhibition against Loyola on Nov. 5 and knows now it has to be more intense from the start.

Last year, three AAC teams received NCAA berths, led by three-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut. Stockton is hoping as many as five go this season.

“I think South Florida probably has an edge on everybody else (as the second team),” said Stockton, whose team went 11-7 last year in conference. “Temple returned a lot, and East Carolina is strong. After that, it’s anybody’s game.”