Tulane men out to end their skid in regular-season finale at South Florida _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Tulane basketball coach Ed Conroy

Overmatched athletically almost every time it stepped on the court for its debut season in the American Athletic Conference, Tulane took a huge step to rectify that deficiency with its latest signing class.

For once, the steady stream of players leaving coach Ed Conroy’s program has been overshadowed by the highest rated batch of newcomers in his tenure. After outperforming the AAC coaches’ expectations of a last-place finish by tying for seventh in the 11-team league, the Green Wave needed an influx of talent to have any hope of moving higher. Tulane, which started 4-2 in the AAC, struggled on both ends of the floor the rest of the way, winning only two of its last 13 league games counting the conference tournament. Reserve forward Payton Henson was the leading shotblocker with a paltry 12. The Wave’s high total for points in its 13-game closing stretch was 63.

“We really felt like we needed to get bigger and more athletic and get more rim protection,” Conroy said. “I think there is no question with the guys we added that we’ve done that.”

Five of the six freshmen received three-star ratings from at least one recruiting service, and 6-foot-6 Higgins High swingman Melvin Frazier is a four-star recruit, according to ESPN.com.

Joining Frazier, whom ESPN.com lists as the third-best prospect in Louisiana, are 6-1 Riverside Academy point guard Von Julien, 6-4 guard Kain Harris from Chicago and 6-6 forward Kipper Nichols of Lakewood, Ohio, along with 6-9 post players Blake Paul from Landry-Walker and Taron Oliver from Rockville, Maryland.

Even Oliver, the lowest rated of the group, received three stars from ESPN.com. In contrast, only two players on Tulane’s active roster this past season — returning senior Louis Dabney and departing freshman Keith Pinckney — earned three stars from any service.

“They have a lot of guys who should be able to help them,” Rivals.com national basketball recruiting analyst Eric Bossi said. “Melvin Frazier is a big-time athlete, who once his basketball skills catch up to his athleticism, has immense potential.

“Kipper Nichols is a guy that I think a lot of programs in the upper Midwest are going to regret letting get away when it’s all said and done, and I really feel like Blake Paul is one of those guys who a few years down the road, (there will) be some Big 12 and SEC teams that wish they would have recruited him a little bit harder.”

This is not a return to the heyday of former coach Perry Clark in the 1990s, when the Wave attracted several nationally elite recruits. According to 247Sports.com, the class ranks 68th overall and ninth best in the AAC, ahead of only Tulsa’s and East Carolina’s.

But Tulane has not even sniffed the top 100 for a long time. With opponents like Memphis, UConn, Cincinnati, Temple and SMU in the AAC, the Wave upgraded its recruiting substantially.

“You got to keep up with the Joneses,” Bossi said. “It’s a better conference. UConn and Memphis are always going to recruit well, but what I like about this one (Tulane’s class) is it covers some needs all across the board, and it should be a great base class to build on down the road. It’s a core of pretty good players that should be good for the long-term health of the program.”

The newcomers will get a chance to prove themselves right away. For the second time in three seasons, Tulane lost a two-year starting point guard, with Jonathan Stark leaving just like Ricky Tarrant did in 2013 after playing a huge role as a full-time starter.

In another repeat of 2013, when six departures gutted the program, Stark had plenty of company. Henson, a sophomore who was fifth on the team in scoring (6.2 ppg) and fourth in rebounding (3.9), left along with Pinckney, a second-string point guard, and reserve forward Josh Hearlihy.

Another player, center Stanley Roberts Jr., likely will become a medical hardship case after playing only six minutes as a freshman, meaning only nine of the 25 players who have signed in Conroy’s tenure will have completed their eligibility at Tulane.

The difference between 2013 and 2015 is the potential of the replacements. Only two players are left from Tulane’s low-rated, six-man 2013 signing class — reserve center Ryan Smith, who averaged 2.4 points, and guard Cameron Reynolds, who missed most of this past season with a hand injury.

“Stability is something every coach would love to have more of,” but (instability) is really the environment now,” Conroy said. “If you look at Duke and the young guys they had in the Final Four this year, you look at Kentucky year in and year out, remaking your roster has become the norm. (The departures) have done their job in the classroom and on the court, and we’ve been able to attract even more talented players coming on top of them.”

Conroy stressed he would not be counting entirely on the freshmen. Dabney has led the team in scoring the past two years, and rising sophomore center Dylan Osetkowski showed promise as a long-term starter. Reynolds, who played in only nine games before his hand injury, and Malik Morgan, a four-star recruit who sat out last season after transferring from LSU, will be on hand, too.

Former Washington center Jernard Jarreau, a 6-10 New Orleans native said last week he would sign with the Wave soon for his senior year.

“The core group of returners is where it starts,” Conroy said. “A lot of people forget that Malik Morgan and Cameron Reynolds were sitting out last year. In practice day in and day out, they were two of our best scorers.”

Still, the pressure to produce will be on Julien, the only point guard on the roster with the transfer of Stark and Pinckney. Julien led Riverside to three consecutive state championships, averaging 13.0 points and 9.2 assists for his career. He showed his athletic ability by winning the Class 2A state championship in the 200-meter dash last weekend.

“He gets everybody involved, and this team is going to have a lot of firepower and a lot of athleticism,” Conroy said. “He knows how to lead a program.”

With the hard work of assistants Shammond Williams, Quannas White and Anthony Wilkins, in addition to Conroy, the class appears to have checked all the boxes. Five of the six freshmen played for state championship teams in high school, bringing a winning pedigree. The lone exception, Frazier, led Higgins on to the Class 5A semifinals.

The three New Orleans-area freshmen beat the total Conroy signed in his first five years, with Riverside alum Dabney the only freshman and Morgan, a John Curtis product, becoming the second when he transferred from LSU.

“Our staff did just a terrific job of digging in on this recruiting class,” Conroy said. “It’s exactly why we joined the American Athletic Conference. The exposure, the ability to get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament, those are things that every recruit in America is looking for.”