Some lessons can only be learned the hard way.
Despite all of the lofty language and high expectations Tulane’s basketball team had for itself, the importance of so many factors didn’t truly sink in until it was upended 71-49 on opening night against Wake Forest.
It was a game lost on so many levels. Coach Ed Conroy and his players pointed to shooting, defensive mindset, maturity, hustle and confidence as areas severely lacking after the ACC opponent walked off of Tulane’s home floor with an easy victory.
Since then, Tulane (6-1) hasn’t looked the same. Over the ensuing three weeks, the Green Wave pieced together a six-game winning streak, thanks to turning many of those early weaknesses into strengths.
Now, with another power conference opponent coming to town, in the Southeastern Conference’s Mississippi State, Tulane’s leaders Jay Hook, Louis Dabney and Tre Drye insisted there won’t be a repeat performance of opening night.
Each focused on the importance on Saturday’s 1 p.m. tipoff against the Bulldogs (5-1) in Devlin Fieldhouse, as not only as a chance to extend a winning streak, but to make a statement.
“To us, it shouldn’t matter because we should see those teams and play our game the same way we do against anybody else,” said Dabney, who leads the Green Wave in scoring at 12.6 per game. “But at the same time, it does matter. Because if you beat a big-name team like (MSU) then it does show people that we can play with the bigger teams and it’s important for us as a program.”
It’s also an opportunity to recapture some of its own fan base. Despite reaching the CIT and CBI in consecutive seasons — snapping a 13-year postseason drought — the Green Wave’s attendance has floundered, not even eclipsing 1,000 people inside Devlin Fieldhouse in wins over Mississippi Valley State, Southern, Southern-New Orleans and Tennessee Tech over the past few weeks.
Saturday’s game will likely bring the largest crowd of the season, not only because of an SEC opponent, but also its timeslot as a lead-in the Green Wave’s season finale football game. For the first time in school history Tulane is hosting a basketball and football game on campus during the same day, as the 1 p.m. tipoff precedes the Green Wave’s 6:30 p.m. kickoff against Temple.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for everybody, not only for our players but also for our fans,” Conroy said. “It should be a great day on campus. You know, a lot of things came together to make it happen. But with having a football stadium on campus, hopefully we can have many more weekends like this.”
Yet, any potential momentum to come off of the double-header is contingent on winning.
To do that, the lessons of the Wake Forest loss are fresh on the minds of Tulane’s players as it practiced this week.
“That game just sticks out like a sore thumb,” Hook said. “We didn’t give them our best shot and we started to figure things out after that. I hate that it had to be that way, but it still put us in a good situation to move forward from it and it allows us to be more ready for this game than anything else. Saturday is a big game for us and we’re definitely conscious of that.”
Senior forward Tre Drye echoed Hook’s sentiments and said every defensive possession is likely to feature Tulane guards crashing the boards to stem MSU’s rebounding edge and trim the advantage size differential could play.
Rather than getting pushed out of the post, the way it was against the Demon Deacons, Drye said Tulane can match the Bulldogs inside by overcoming height through aggression.
It was a trait Tulane exhibited in its 83-70 win at Loyola (IL) on Tuesday night. Despite playing in its first road game this season, Tulane controlled the scoreboard from the opening tip through the final buzzer and often by double-digits to walk out of a Missouri Valley Conference game with a comfortable victory.
“It really showed our kind of growth,” Hook said. “We are maturing in some aspects because in previous years we had to beat teams in the last second or last few possessions on the road and I think we grew, and it showed this past game. We adapted to the road and referees and what comes with that.
“We were good against Loyola and I think that’s the kind of thing that carries on, not just on the road but really everywhere we play.”