Lewis: Outlook bright for Tulane basketball _lowres

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH Tulane's Jonathan Stark tries to shoot over Wake' Forest's Darius Leonard on Nov. 17 in New Orleans.

When Tulane joined what the Big East Conference two years ago, the immediate reaction was that the Green Wave was going to have to get a lot better in basketball or find itself in way over its head.

Well, a lot of water’s flowed under the Crescent City Connection since then.

The Big East has since split and Tulane is now a first-year member of the American Athletic Conference, home of who Commissioner Mike Aresco likes to repeatedly remind folks, Connecticut, both the men’s and women’s defending national champions.

But look at the standings, and — perhaps to your surprise — you will see Tulane with the best records for both men (8-1) and women (7-1).

To be sure, league play hasn’t begun. And the rest of the AAC is a lot closer to Tulane than Tulane was to the rest of Big East in 2012.

In fact, there isn’t an AAC team, including UConn, getting a vote in the latest Associated Press poll and there’s the very real possibility that the American, currently ninth in conference RPI, will be a one-bid league after getting four last year including now-departed Louisville.

On the women’s side, No. 2 UConn is the only AAC team in the Top 25, although Tulane did receive one 25th-place nod in this week’s coaches rankings.

But for the Green Wave, it still feels good.

“We’re both in a pretty good place right now,” said women’s coach Lisa Stockton, who, in her 21 seasons at the school has seen plenty of ups and downs in both her program and the rest of the athletic department. “It’s been a fun year so far.

“We know we’re going into a better league. But we don’t see any reason we can’t keep it going.”

Both Tulane teams will be playing at Devlin Fieldhouse on Friday, the men against Jackson State at 1 p.m. and the women against Miami at 7 p.m. in the final game of the Doubletree Classic which actually began Thursday with the Wave playing Samford.

For the men, Jackson State presents the last tune-up opponent before things get interesting.

On Monday, the Wave plays at No. 16 Washington and after a quick break for Christmas begins an eight-day, three-game road trip starting with a Dec. 28 meeting against No. 20 St. John’s in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn followed by conference road games at East Carolina on Dec. 31 and Memphis on Jan. 3.

“Those two games can really put Tulane basketball on the map,” Tulane junior guard Louis Dabney said. “We want to show people that we’re not one of the weak teams in our conference and that we can play with the best teams.”

Beating a ranked team certainly would put the Wave on the basketball map. Tulane hasn’t done so since 15 years to the day of the Washington game — Dec. 22, 1999 against North Carolina State — with 26 straight defeats since then, only one by less than double-digits.

That shows the depths Tulane basketball has been in since its last NCAA tournament appearance 20 years ago.

Breaking that streak either against Washington or St. John’s isn’t likely.

Despite its glitzy record, the Wave is ranked only No. 141 in RPI thanks to a No. 272 strength of schedule.

But then again, neither does Tulane look like the team picked last in the AAC by the coaches.

In fact, the Wave is sixth in the league in RPI, one spot ahead of traditional power Memphis.

“We’re definitely in position to be more competitive than we would have been in the past couple of years,” said Tulane Coach Ed Conroy, who is his fifth season. “We have more depth in practices and that goes a long ways toward us being more competitive against the better teams we play because we can simulate just about any situation we face.”

Depth, Conroy added, also gives more players more minutes deducing discontentment about playing time. In fact, when backup forward Payton Henson scored 20 points in Tuesday’s 75-67 victory against Savannah State, it was the first time this season any player had gotten that many.

“We play a style that everybody touches the ball and that allows them to move around to all parts of the court,” Conroy said, “We pride ourselves in developing players, and it’s exciting to see our freshmen from last year become so much better as sophomores.”

The Tulane women are getting a boost from a player who didn’t wait until her sophomore year to have an impact.

Freshman Kolby Morgan is averaging a team-leading 14.6 points per game.

”I think Kolby’s coming along so quickly has made us have a little better this year than we might have expected to this point,” said Stockton, whose team has victories against LSU and North Carolina State thus far. “She’s given us the consistent scorer and presence we needed.

“We’ve jelled quickly and handled our schedule pretty well.”

So well, that the Wave No. 26 in RPI and projects to be a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament according to Real Time RPI.

For Tulane that would be the program’s first NCAA appearance since 2010, which is only one since the Wave went nine straight times between 1995 and 2003, Stockton’s first nine years at the school.

“It’s what you always strive for,” Stockton said. “It would be great to be in that situation again.

“But it’s tough to get there. I do think this league gives us a better chance, though.”

Indeed, the presence of the UConn women, who visit Devlin Fieldhouse on Feb. 26, is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

“We’re anxious to play UConn to show how well we can compete against the best,” senior guard Jamie Kaplan said. “Practice has definitely been more intense this year, and maybe that’s why.”

The idea of going to the NCAA tournament doesn’t hurt either.

“We’re very hungry to do what teams before us have done,” said Kaplan, noting a banner in Devlin marking the Wave’s past NCAA appearances. “You can’t look up there and not think about it.”

For both the Tulane women and men, it seems, there’s plenty to think about — and dream about — for a change.

Ted Lewis

Sports Coordinator

The New Orleans Advocate