Playing in the Smoothie King Center for the first time since 2011, the Tulane men’s basketball team has a chance to sweep Memphis for the first time in 32 years.
It’s not hard to figure out which part of that history holds more interest for the Green Wave. Having entered by far the hardest stretch of its schedule, Tulane can make another statement about its competitiveness in the American Athletic Conference when the teams tip off at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Statement No. 1 came Jan. 3, when the Wave (13-6, 4-3) snapped a 22-game losing streak to the Tigers with a 74-66 victory on the road. Memphis (11-7, 4-3) is down a bit after reaching the NCAA tournament the past four years, but the program remains a brand name in college basketball.
“Beating them again would be a great statement,” said sophomore point guard Jonathan Stark, a Tennessee native who scored a season-high 24 points in a sweet return to his home state the first time the teams met. “It’s something Tulane has not done in a long time, and it would be big for the program.”
Tulane lost to league favorite SMU 66-52 at Devlin Fieldhouse on Wednesday. The schedule from here has almost no soft spots until March, with two games against first-place Tulsa, perennial NCAA tournament team Cincinnati and defending national champion Connecticut on the agenda before the end of February.
Beating Memphis again would be massive.
“I’m expecting them to come try to send a message early, so we have to be ready for a war from the jump,” guard Louis Dabney said. “I’m really excited to play those guys and just show them what I can do.”
Dabney, who’s averaging a team-best 14.1 points, did not get that opportunity in the first win. He suffered a high ankle sprain barely a minute into the game and watched the rest of the way from the bench, although he has not missed any time since.
That’s one of a few factors that could bode well for Tulane in the rematch.
“He brings a lot to our team, so I think we’ll play a lot better (than in the first meeting),” Stark said.
Tulane also overcame a career-high 28 points on 13-of-19 shooting from Memphis sophomore forward Austin Nichols, whose next-best total for points is 20 and has not reached double figures in field goals in any other game. He leads the Tigers with a scoring average of 12.7 points but is unlikely to get as hot as he did the first time.
The venue could help, too. In its three conference games at Devlin Fieldhouse, Tulane shot worse than 40 percent against Temple, South Florida and SMU while scoring no more than 56 points. The Wave has shot better than 40 percent in all four of its road games, scoring at least 67 points.
The players have no answer for their woes at home, but they are looking forward to the downtown setting. In Tulane’s most recent game at the Smoothie Center, then-freshman guard Jay Hook sank three 3-pointers and scored a season-high 13 points in a 65-46 win against San Diego on Nov. 27, 2011. He said he connected on five 3s there in a preseason scrimmage against Auburn this year.
“I just like the Smoothie King Center,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the lighting or being there (in a pro environment), but I really feel like I get in a rhythm.”
Tulane played seven games at the downtown arena in 1999-2000 soon after it opened and six more in 2000-01, but the arrival of the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) in 2002, plus the Wave’s sagging fortunes, effectively ended that relationship
This will be Tulane’s fifth game at the Smoothie King Center since 2004 and the second in coach Ed Conroy’s five years. The higher-profile AAC should allow the Wave to play there more often in future seasons, but they won’t get another chance this year.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to be playing on an NBA floor,” Stark said. “We just have to go out and play ball.”