Lack of defense cripples Tulane men’s basketball team in danger of last-place finish _lowres

SMU guard Sterling Brown (3) goes up to shoot after getting past Tulane's Dylan Osetkowski (21) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Brad Loper)

Already without a rim protector because of center Jernard Jarreau’s extended absence, the Tulane men’s basketball team has struggled to guard any area of the court in it past three games.

If the Green Wave (10-19, 3-13 American Athletic Conference) does not fix that problem Wednesday night at Central Florida (11-16, 5-11), it will move one step closer to meeting the league’s coaches’ near-unanimous prediction of a last-place finish.

Second-half defense has become a rumor as Tulane followed a rare two-game winning streak by losing three in a row. Houston shot 17-of-25 from the floor (68 percent) to pull away for an 82-69 victory Feb. 17 at Devlin Fieldhouse.

East Carolina connected on 16-of-25 (64 percent) in a 79-73 win at the same venue seven days later. SMU also hit 16-of-25 on Sunday in Dallas, erasing a 29-28 halftime deficit to blitz the Wave 74-53.

It’s hard to win when opponents are hitting nearly two-thirds of their shots after the break, a stat coach Ed Conroy attributed to too many fouls and freshman-focus issues in a rotation with four first-year players.

“We’ve done a good job of defending for the first half,” he said. “Our bigs have to be able to move their feet and stay out of foul trouble. That’s a big part of it. It changes rotations and changes the aggressiveness. That’s part of the learning process, but as I told our guys, we have to be men of March. By the time you get to March, you have to understand as a freshman how to keep the intensity up the entire game.”

Jarreau, who blocked 31 shots while altering others in the first 18 games, won’t be part of the solution.

Conroy expects him to miss the rest of the season with a leg injury that has sidelined him for the past 11 contests.

The issues go deeper than that anyway. Houston and East Carolina blitzed Tulane on screens, getting wide-open looks for the ball-handler, the screener or a third option as Tulane missed assignments.

The Wave ranks second-to-last in the AAC in field-goal percentage defense during conference games (.471) and last in defending 3-pointers (.383).

“Our biggest problem is we haven’t been communicating on defense,” senior guard Louis Dabney said. “We’ve let a lot of stuff slide. Not the coaches, but the players on the court, and it’s really hurting us.”

The recent defensive collapse came just as the offense picked up, typical of struggling teams that plug one hole only to see another chasm develop. Before coming up empty in the second half against SMU, Tulane averaged 73.25 points in regulation of its past four games, by far its best stretch in two years of AAC play.

Still, the Wave is last in the league standings and close to last in almost every statistical category, with one more chance to move up in the final week of the regular season.

Central Florida has feasted on bottom feeders, sweeping East Carolina (3-13) and South Florida (4-12) and beating Tulane while going 0-11 against every other team in the AAC. Aside from a pair of 2-point defeats to Temple, none of those losses have been close.

The Knights have dropped six straight and nine of 10.

With AAC co-leader and NCAA tournament hopeful Temple coming to Devlin Fieldhouse for Senior Day on Sunday, this is Tulane’s best chance for another victory ahead of the conference tournament. Oddly, the Wave has won seven road games and only two home games since joining the league.

On the road at No. 24 SMU, Tulane trailed 45-42 with 12:30 left and 48-44 near the midpoint of the second half before faltering.

The key is committing to defense for 40 minutes.

“We have the ability,” Conroy said. “We just have to have more resolve with guarding the ball. Once guys start getting beat off the ball, others guys start overcompensating. The definition of adversity is if something happens, are you going to stick to what you do and do it even better? We haven’t been as resilient as we need to be.”