Already struggling against the top half of the American Athletic Conference, Tulane faces its toughest challenge yet on Sunday.
When the Green Wave (8-10, 1-4 AAC) entertains 10th-ranked SMU (16-0, 5-0) at Devlin Fieldhouse, it will try to find a way to beat the last unbeaten team in men’s college basketball.
“They are a tremendously talented passing team,” Tulane coach Ed Conroy said. “The speed of the game when you play them is hard to duplicate just because thy have five threats out there that can score but are also willing passers.”
The Mustangs are ineligible for the NCAA tournament because of rules violations that led to the suspension of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown for their first nine games, but at least one analyst expects them to make history anyway. Earlier this week, ESPN commentator Dan Dakich predicted SMU would become the first team to finish undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
The Mustangs certainly have been hard to stop. Their shooting percentage of .521 is by far the best in the AAC and the fourth highest in the nation. They also lead the league in 3-point shooting percentage (.437), ranking fourth out of 11 teams in made treys per game despite attempting the fewest.
Correspondingly, Tulane is near the bottom of the conference in field goal percentage allowed and 3-point percentage allowed.
“Our positioning on defense is going to have to be as good as it’s been all year,” Conroy said. “They’ll find your mistake because of their ability to pass and score. They are just so efficient. They play the game the right way.”
All of its wrong moves off the court have not affected SMU’s chemistry on it. Junior guard Keith Frazier, whose academic fraud case led to the NCAA sanctions, left the team at the beginning of January and announced he would transfer Friday.
No matter. Down a double-figure scorer (Frazier averaged 11.9 points) and with only seven available scholarship players, the Mustangs have won their four games without him by an average of 14.
The catalyst is 5-foot-9 senior point guard Nic Moore, who averages a team-high 15.4 points and a conference-best 5.2 assists. He also has hit 44.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, the third-best accuracy rate in the league.
In a rare close call against Cincinnati, Moore drained two 3s in a closing 11-2 run as SMU won 59-57. Six days later, he handed out 12 assists with zero turnovers in a blowout of East Carolina.
“He can step up and do whatever the game calls on him to do,” Conroy said. “No mater which way you play him, he’s gong to make the read and make the correct play.”
Moore gets plenty of help. Ben Moore (no relation) averages 13.3 points and 7.9 rebounds, connecting on 57.9 percent of his shots. Jordan Tolbert averages 12.8 points and 9.6 rebounds, shooting 57.8 percent. Freshman Shake Milton sank seven 3-pointers in an 81-69 win at Tulsa.
Yet, their accuracy pales in comparison to guard Sterling Brown, who has hit 55 of 75 shots overall (73.3 percent) and an absurd 16 of 23 3-pointers (69.6 percent).
At least Tulane is coming off one of its best halves of the season. Trailing South Florida 33-32 at halftime on Tuesday, the Green Wave outscored the Bulls 49-37 the rest of the way for its first conference win, getting 19 points and 14 rebounds from Dylan Osetkowski and a season-high 15 points from freshman Melvin Frazier.
“Just seeing things finally go our way was a real inspiration,” said guard Louis Dabney, who also had 19 points. “It had to happen. We work too hard in practice to not reap the benefits of it.”
Still, the numbers were hardly SMU-like. Dabney shot 5 of 15 but felt as if he had emerged from a long funk. Tulane hit 41.5 percent overall against a team that fell to 3-16.
The Wave, which has lost 28 consecutive games against top-10 opponents since beating Memphis twice in the span of eight days in 1983, will need to be much sharper to have any chance at taking down SMU.
“It will be a big test for us and a lot of fun,” Osetkowski said. “We’re looking to end that undefeated streak.”