The Tulane men’s basketball team is no longer punching above its weight in the American Athletic Conference.
The preseason poll that ranked the Green Wave last in the 11-team league, conducted by the conference’s coaches, is now a faint memory for not only those inside the Tulane program but also among its anxious fans.
After winning consecutive road games to start American play, including its first win at Memphis since 1992, the Green Wave (11-4, 2-1 American) stood toe-to-toe with first-place Temple before succumbing in the final three minutes of a 64-56 loss on Wednesday.
“Yeah, I used to remind them of that poll a few times in conditioning drills and at some key times where I thought it was appropriate,” Tulane coach Ed Conroy said. “But for the most part, we try to block out of the noise from the outside and keep everything inside the building. But we know what’s going on still, and we can use it.”
Now, as optimism begins to take shape after a series of impressive underdog performances, expectations have started to shift around the Green Wave. Rather than seeking a handful of conference victories, a winning record against the league appears to be feasible. But it starts with handling games like Sunday’s 2 p.m. home tilt against South Florida in Devlin Fieldhouse.
Although the Bulls are one of three holdovers from the powerhouse hoops league of the pre-splintered Big East (which split into the American two years ago), any on-paper analysis shows the pressure is on Tulane to win this game.
The Bulls (7-9, 1-2) are rated No. 203 in ESPN’s RPI index and haven’t beaten a team with an RPI better than No. 172 (Hofstra). Add in home court advantage, and the concept of Tulane being the underdog in AAC games becomes an afterthought.
However, Tulane players were quick to point out USF’s potential and the difficult schedule it has faced so far this year. Of the Bulls’ nine losses, six were against top-100 RPI opponents, and four were to teams in the top 50 (three of those came the road).
But this is the level of competition Tulane knew it was going to face on a nightly basis once the calendar turned to 2015. It’s the kind of depth the Green Wave rarely saw in its final few seasons in Conference USA.
“I can remember coach Conroy showing us that poll before the season that showed us in last place, and he asked us if that’s where we really want to be thought about,” point guard Jonathan Stark said. “Everyone said we knew we were better than that. I think it’s important we change that perception, and I think we have made some statements, but there are lot more statements left to make to really get that job done.”
One position in particular has altered its image on the Green Wave roster. A year after receiving nearly no production from the center spot, Tulane has latched on to statistical boosts from sophomore Ryan Smith and freshman Dylan Osetkowski, who combined for 19 points and connected on eight of nine field-goal attempts in the loss to Temple.
“If our expectations might have been low for our team coming into the season, they were extremely low for that position,” Conroy said. “For those guys to kind of work through that and play with so much confidence, it bodes really well for us for the future. And we have to continue to use them.”
It’s where Sunday’s game could take a sharp turn. After dominating the paint in the first half against Temple, the longer and stronger Owls finished with 19 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points.
Considering South Florida’s front line of Chris Perry (6-foot-8) and Reuben Guerrero (6-foot-11), the priority on controlling the area will be an important one as Tulane tries to keep itself hovering above the American basement.
“We know this is going to be a physical game just like that one was,” senior guard Jay Hook said. “We also know we need to get something out of playing at home and not give up everything we earned on the road. It’s going to be intense, and it’s important.”