South Florida, the cure-all for the Tulane men’s basketball team the past two years, will arrive at Devlin Fieldhouse on Wednesday night. This time, though, the Green Wave may be too beaten down to take advantage.
After a 97-75 drubbing at Cincinnati on Sunday — during which Tulane trailed 27-5 six minutes into the game, 42-14 with 6:25 left in the first half and 80-40 midway through the second half — coach Ed Conroy recognized his biggest challenge was keeping the Wave (8-13, 1-7 American Athletic Conference) from fracturing.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever talked like I just did to our team right now,” he said in his postgame radio interview. “I know the loss stings and it hurts, but I really did see some positive things going forward and I just told them, ‘Please don’t take a step back. We can’t even take half of a step back.’ ”
Tulane has been on its heels for most of its first two seasons in the AAC. Since starting 4-2 a year ago, the Wave is 3-18 against conference opponents, and six of its seven defeats this year have come by double digits.
It is shooting an AAC-worst 36.8 percent and also has broken down defensively, allowing Tulsa to hit 13 of 20 3-pointers and Cincinnati to connect on its first 11 shots.
Throw in the 16 turnovers the Wave committed in the first half against Cincinnati’s pressure defense, and Conroy was dealing with a debacle that heightened questions about his future at Tulane under new athletic director Troy Dannen.
“We have to take better care of the basketball,” Conroy said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen (16 turnovers in a half) with our group. We’ve had trouble taking care of the basketball, but never to that extreme. We just didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
“We can’t listen to anything on the periphery or the outside. We have to know what’s going on in our locker room with our team, and I really think this is something, even in this tough loss, that we can build on.”
Enter South Florida (4-17, 1-7), which won at Houston on Sunday behind 30 points from guard Jahmal McMurray to end a nine-game skid. Since Jan. 11, 2015, the Wave is 3-0 versus the Bulls, including an 81-70 victory in Tampa two weeks ago, and 2-19 versus the rest of the league.
Conroy pointed to a few positives against Cincinnati. Tulane shot 48.2 percent, its highest number in the AAC. Malik Morgan scored a career-high 23 points while making five of nine 3-pointers. Freshman point guard Von Julien sank all four of his 3-point attempts after going 2 for 20 from the floor in his last nine games.
“I don’t think it’s any accident,” Conroy said. “The better the ball movement, the more those guys can benefit off of what we’re doing. Those were probably the four best looks Von’s had from 3 all year long because they all came from inside out. They all came from team basketball.”
When Tulane beat South Florida the first time, senior center Jernard Jarreau swatting three shots, but he will miss his third consecutive game with a leg injury that will sideline him for the foreseeable future. The Wave blocked a total of four shots in two games last week.
Without Jarreau, the key to sweeping South Florida will be blocking out the negativity swirling around the program.
“To compete in this league, you have to be ready every night out,” Conroy said. “They will be a tough and very confident opponent coming into our place now that they’ve gotten that win under their belts.”