When the Tulane men’s basketball team beat Georgia Tech to improve to 9-0 six years ago, the players celebrated at midcourt as if they had had won the national championship.
It did not matter that the Green Wave entered as the betting favorite. The Yellow Jackets, who would finish 11-20, were a name team, and Tulane was not used to beating opponents with pedigree.
Contrast that celebration with the Wave’s low-key approach after rallying to beat defending American Athletic Conference champion SMU on Thursday. No one danced or jumped up and down or even hugged. The players simply walked to the hand-shake line before gathering to sing the alma mater, as they do at the end of every game.
It is all about expectations. The 2011-12 team lost to Wofford three days after beating Georgia Tech and went a woeful 3-13 in Conference USA.
Tulane (11-4, 2-1 AAC) has much higher aspirations this time, starting with Tuesday’s game at Memphis (10-6, 1-2) at 6 p.m. on ESPNews.
“Every game that we play, our expectation is to win,” junior guard Jordan Cornish said. “This isn’t last year’s team. We are trying to win this league, and we believe that we can win this league if we play our brand of basketball.”
Cornish may have been getting a little ahead of himself. Fifth-ranked Wichita State and No. 14 Cincinnati remain the overwhelming favorites, but his view reflects the mindset in coach Mike Dunleavy’s second season after nearly 20 years of losing. Tulane has finished above .500 in conference play only once this century, placing higher than seventh in the standings twice.
“We’re trying to make it a winning culture over here, just getting used to winning,” said forward Melvin Frazier, who is averaging a team-best 16.9 points on 58.5 percent shooting. “It’s like we expected to win (against SMU), so we won and just kept on about our business.”
There was nothing fluky about the way Tulane won. Trailing by 12 with 12:30 left, the Wave went on a 24-8 run as the Mustangs wore down, taking and making high percentage shots.
SMU followed that defeat by losing 76-56 at Cincinnati but still should be Tulane’s first regular-season victim to finish .500 or better in the AAC since the Bearcats in 2014-15.
“We feel like we should win,” forward Cameron Reynolds said. “Our expectations are high and we beat a really good team. Even though it’s a big win, we’ve still got to maintain focus and act like we’ve been there.”
The next step is backing it up. Memphis had an almost total roster turnover after veteran coach Tubby Smith’s turbulent first season, but the Tigers beat Tulsa 76-67 on Saturday six days after the Golden Hurricane won at Tulane 65-56.
Even though Memphis looks nothing like the powerhouse program of the past, the Wave cannot afford the same letdown it experienced against Tulsa after beating Temple in its AAC opener.
“It’s all about the first four minutes,” Cornish said. “We have to go out there with energy and passion and punch them in the mouth first and not let them attack us.”
Memphis junior guard Jeremiah Martin, one of only two returning players who logged minutes a year ago, torched Tulsa for 28 points and averages a team-high 17.3. Tulane will try to counter his scoring with depth after getting 8 or more points from six players against SMU.
“They’ve improved in so many areas,” Smith said. “They are playing very efficiently and are very athletic. They are a good 3-point shooting team and are defending at the rim. They have a lot of balance this year, and that’s been a big key.”
Tulane has lost 18 of its last 19 at Memphis, but won there in 2014-15, ending a 16-game skid in its first season in the AAC. … Reynolds made the AAC weekly honor role for after scoring 20 points in the Wave’s win against SMU. … Memphis has not reached the NCAA tournament since 2014 after making it every year from 2005 to 2013.