Picked to finish in the depths of the American Athletic Conference, the Tulane men’s basketball team hopes its depth will carry it higher than most expect.
A month into preseason practice, the number of functional bodies is the biggest difference between coach Ed Conroy’s fifth team and his first four.
He has two options at point guard: sophomore Jonathan Stark and freshman Keith Pinckney. He has multiple possibilities at the other two spots in his three-guard lineup with junior Lou Dabney, senior Jay Hook and sophomores Kajon Mack and Cameron Reynolds. Sophomores Payton Henson and Josh Hearlihy can play a variety of roles in the backcourt and the frontcourt, potentially helping senior Tre Drye at power forward.
Even at center, where Tulane is devoid of a proven contributor, the Green Wave will have an extra body with the NCAA clearing walk-on Northwestern transfer Aaron Liberman to play this week. He joins sophomore Ryan Smith and freshman Dylan Osetkowski in the completion for minutes there.
The Wave opens with an exhibition against Loyola on Wednesday.
“Our depth is going to be a big help,” said Dabney, who led the Wave with 15.2 points per game last season. “It will allow not just me but everybody to play at 100 percent and not worry about being tired. You’ll have a sub coming in for you.”
Conroy did not have that luxury last year, when Stark averaged a Conference USA-high 37.2 minutes and four of the five starters played at least 30 minutes per game. The Wave lacked a legitimate backup point guard, had no consistent outside shooter other than Hook and no real threats other than Dabney, Hook and Starks.
Drye, Tulane’s fourth-leading scorer, averaged 6.9 points. No one else averaged 4.0 points.
The return of Mack (who was redshirted in 2013-14 with a foot injury), the addition of Pinckney and the expected improvement of Henson, Reynolds and Hearlihy should make a huge difference.
“It’s going to allow us to play at a faster tempo on both ends of the floor, and guys’ bodies won’t wear down as much,” Conroy said. “And the biggest thing is we have a selfless group. I think they’ll really buy into the fact that maybe their stats won’t be what they were and maybe their minutes won’t be what they were, but as a team we can go further.”
Conroy singled out the sophomore class as taking the biggest jumps. Henson and Reynolds had moments of productivity last season but were inconsistent, shooting below 30 percent from 3-point range. Smith struggled mightily as a third-string center, averaging 1.3 rebounds and 0.7 points.
“It’s not that they are any different than what I thought they might be when we recruited them,” Conroy said. “But it takes time. We knew what their potential was, and we were very confident they would get to that level.”
Conroy labeled Pinckney, who at 6-foot-2 is two inches taller than Stark, a “physical guard” whose progress is ahead of the pace of some of his freshmen from the past.
Mack, a 6-3 guard who can defend any backcourt position, is one of the Wave’s most athletic players. His absence a year ago dashed Tulane’s depth.
“My ankle isn’t bothering me at all,” he said. “I’m just bringing energy every day and trying to be a leader. I’ll play wherever Coach puts me.”
His teammates exceeded expectations by finishing in the middle of the pack in Conference USA. Although AAC coaches tabbed Tulane last in their preseason poll, Dabney envisions at least a similar leap this season.
“I feel great about our team,” he said. “Our defense is far better than what it was last year at this point, and our offense as well. I feel like everybody is better altogether.”
It’s unclear how much playing time the 6-10 Liberman will get. He played in 10 games for Northwestern last year and scored two points, but he said clashes with the coaches hurt him.
Dabney, for one, is a believer.
“He’s very athletic, he’s fast and he plays so hard,” he said. “There’s not a shot he won’t contest, and he loves to take charges.”