There were almost too many areas for Ed Conroy to cover.
The Tulane men’s basketball team’s 74-66 victory over Memphis on Saturday at FedEx Forum was so monumental, in so many ways, that the Green Wave coach could hardly get to everything.
But, after knocking off the Tigers, Conroy tried his best to keep the focus on the current incarnation of the Green Wave, which has jumped out to an 11-3 record and won consecutive road games to open its first season in the American Athletic Conference. It’s a team that has crept up to No. 95 in the RPI and has the opportunity to bust the expectations placed on them by the league’s coaches — who ranked Tulane last in the conference’s preseason poll.
“This team has shown us a lot,” Conroy said. “It’s not a perfect team by any stretch, but you just can’t fault their energy and mental toughness after a game like that one. This isn’t about trying to prove people wrong or anything. It’s about a team who really wants to live up to its potential. And nights like this help show people what our potential is.”
It’s easily the most headline-grabbing win in Conroy’s five-year tenure at Tulane. Although Memphis is unranked, it still is a standard bearer in college basketball.
Tulane entered the night having lost 22 consecutive games to Memphis and walked off the Tigers’ home floor with a victory for the first time since 1992. It was a meaningful moment against the type of program Conroy aspires for his to become.
He recalled recruiting shooting guard Kajon Mack out of California and telling his staff that Mack was the kind of guy who could pull down a late rebound in the FedEx Forum. With the score tied at 62 and less than four minutes remaining, it was Mack who pulled down a defensive rebound in traffic that triggered Tre Drye’s go-ahead layup, providing a lead Tulane wouldn’t relinquish.
Then Conroy mentioned the way he persuaded point guard Jonathan Stark to join the Green Wave late in the summer of 2013. A product of Munford, Tennessee, Stark grew up rooting on Memphis as it steamrolled through Conference USA — and Tulane — for more than a decade.
“I actually used to watch Memphis every game, and I would also go to all of the Memphis Madness stuff,” Stark said. “It’s always a great atmosphere, and the crowd was always jumping.”
In front of dozens of family members Saturday, he had his Memphis moment by silencing 13,914 people mostly decked out in blue.
Stark scored 24 points and dished out four assists without committing a turnover. He nabbed three steals and helped limit Memphis’ starting backcourt to just nine points.
Even more impressive, he did it without the assistance of Tulane’s leading scorer and fellow guard Louis Dabney, who rolled his ankle in the opening minutes and couldn’t return.
“I think Jonathan understood the importance of beating Memphis because Memphis basketball meant a lot to him,” Conroy said. “All I asked him to do was stay aggressive, and he put together one of the most impressive stat lines I’ve ever seen, especially considering he loses his backcourt-mate. He never once looked around for help or for someone else to bring the ball up. He was aggressive and he wanted it so badly all night long. What more could I ask for?”
Conroy understands the opportunity he has been presented. Saddled with the lowest attendance in the American at just 1,095 fans per game in Devlin Fieldhouse, Tulane has a chance to revitalize its program, which hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament or NIT since 2000.
Beating the former king of the conference is a good place to light the match. It starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday when Tulane hosts Temple (11-4, 2-0) in its first home game since Dec. 19 — with a chance to take an outright hold of first place in the conference.
“We had some issues with the roster a few years ago, but we knew it was an opportunity to kind of reshape things and get a bunch of kids who are really tough and committed to what we are doing,” Conroy said. “I think (the Memphis) game was just one example of it. ...
“This isn’t about redemption for me. I want people to know what this team is about and get behind them. I think the world of this team, and they’re such a fun group to coach.”