NEW ORLEANS — For weeks, Tulane men’s basketball coach Ed Conroy has urged his team to play inside-out.
Over prolonged stretches Green Wave players resorted to barreling through the paint in search of contact, hoping for an offensive rebound, with a faint chance at converting the shot. However in its past three games, Tulane (16-9, 4-6 Conference USA) has adapted to Conroy’s pleas, drawing in defenders on drives and passing out to open shooters.
It sounds like a basic adjustment, but implementation against zone defenses, focused on shutting Tulane out of the lane, stunted production. Recently, however, the offense has begun to click.
“We’re finally attacking as a unit,” Conroy said. “It’s been much easier to watch.”
It has resulted in a more perimeter-oriented style, highlighted by senior guard Ben Cherry converting all five of his 3-point attempts in Tulane’s frenetic 71-60 loss to Southern Miss on Wednesday night. It also propelled the Wave to its two highest scoring outings of the season, racking up 93 and 88 points in wins over Houston and Marshall last week.
“We switched up our offense a bit because we don’t run any flare screens, instead it’s basically all drive-and-kick and we started doing that against Marshall,” Cherry said. “Since we started doing that, I’ve been getting a lot more open looks and when those looks become consistent, confidence grows out of that because you aren’t worried about missing a shot.
“If you’re only getting one clean look per night, you’re hesitant to take the shot because it really hurts the team to miss it. But if the offense starts setting up open look after open look, you have to take them or you’re hurting the team.”
Tulane hopes to spring Cherry loose again 1:30 p.m. Saturday when it hosts SMU in Devlin Fieldhouse. During the pair’s Jan. 12 matchup in Dallas, the Mustangs (13-12, 3-7) shut down Tulane’s offense by closing off the lane, blocking eight shots and forcing 21 turnovers in a 59-53 win.
Senior Kendall Timmons said the Green Wave grew into a routine of playing inside and scoring at the free-throw line while compiling a 12-3 nonconference record to start the season. But a 2-5 start against Conference USA foes (averaging just 54.4 points in the losses) provided evidence an adjustment was necessary.
“We had those games at the beginning of the season when things were going really well, where we were taking everything to the basket and getting to the free-throw line and it led to some comfortable wins,” Timmons said. “I think guys got comfortable with that and they didn’t think we needed to focus (on passing) because we were all having so much success just driving and getting to the basket. Once teams really started packing it in, it was a tough adjustment for us in the beginning, but I think we’re starting to see that and it’s really starting to pay off for us.”
While the Green Wave’s offense is still fueled by its athletes breaking through the top of a half-court defense, Conroy said his team is “significantly more dynamic” now. Tulane isn’t necessarily pulling its strategy away from Josh Davis, who leads C-USA in rebounding (10 per game) and ranks second in scoring (17.6 per game), but is working to properly complement him.
In its first five conference losses, Tulane converted just 17 3-pointers. In the past three games it has made 24.
To Conroy, the successful perimeter shooting is more symbolic of his team’s overall growth than a measure of improved accuracy from beyond the arc. It’s a critical symbol of success for a program eyeing its first finish outside the C-USA basement in three years and aiming to garner its first postseason invitation since the 2000 NIT.
“I think the improvement the past couple of weeks is that we are passing the ball better,” Conroy said. “We are finding guys and when we’re knocking shots, not only is that good thing on its own, but it shows we are moving the ball the way we are supposed to.”
“It was frustrating with this team, because as coachable as they are, I couldn’t get them to move the ball the way need to. We are scoring more lately, but it’s sort of ironic, because we’re passing more than we were before. When we weren’t scoring, it wasn’t anything we were doing differently, except holding the ball too much and now we are better at thinking quicker and reacting faster to read the situation and find the open man.”