After a pair of brutal losses at the Boardwalk Battle, Tulane’s Mike Dunleavy tried something for the first time in his long coaching career.
When the Green Wave men’s basketball team returned from a short Christmas break, he went back to basic block-out and toughness drills in midseason practices. Tulane, which was outrebounded 46-22 in a 73-55 defeat to Towson and outhustled by formerly winless Alabama A&M in a 67-59 embarrassment, has stuck to that routine for the last two weeks.
“If you came and watched all of practice today, you would think it was the first day of training camp in what we’re doing as far as box-out drills,” Dunleavy said Monday. “These are things I honestly would not have taken a chance on because of injuries, but where we are right now, I’d rather be injured with guys that are playing hard and playing tough than the results I’m getting.”
The philosophy change has not produced a victory, but Tulane (4-10, 0-2 American Athletic Conference) outrebounded SMU 25-13 in the second half on Friday night before losing by single digits. The Wave, which has three freshmen and two redshirt freshmen in its 10-player rotation, will try to take that same intensity on the road to South Florida (11-3, 1-1) for Wednesday’s 6 p.m. tip on ESPN3 and see what happens.
“Our whole goal now is like my first year here,” said Dunleavy, who went 6-25 overall and 3-15 in the AAC in 2016-17. “We’ve got to get better each day and become the best team we can become when we go to the conference tournament.”
Dunleavy said he lived with mistakes during non-conference games because he was trying to win. He switched to a no-tolerance policy on effort at the start of league play, which included an opening 93-61 loss at defending champion Cincinnati.
“The other night, the first guy to miss a box out, you’re out,” he said. “You let a guy go backdoor, you’re out. It’s the only way to maybe teach it.”
The effects of the Wave’s free fall have been obvious. Athletic director Troy Dannen attended practice last Thursday, watching Tulane work on half-court drills and talking to injured point guard Ray Ona Embo (patellar tendinitis) and senior guard Jordan Cornish while he sat out with a minor injury.
Cornish said Dannen brought up his first year as athletic director at Northern Iowa, when the Panthers went 6-5 out of conference, lost their Missouri Valley opener and then ripped off 11 in a row on their way to the NCAA tournament.
His message was not about duplication of that feat, but attitude.
“He was just telling me to stay positive,” Cornish said. “We just need that one thing to go good, and then everything else will come with it.”
The Wave will try to build off its second half against SMU, when it cut a 59-43 deficit to 65-59 by simply playing harder and paying attention to detail. Whether it was directly related to the new practice style or not, post player Samir Sehic grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds.
“It’s increased our intensity as a group,” Sehic said. “It requires us to bring a level of toughness every day, and whatever you do in practice translates to the game.”
Tulane is 4-0 in Tampa, Florida since joining the AAC, but this is a different South Florida. The Bulls had won seven in a row for the first time since 2007-08 before losing to Tulsa on a buzzer-beating shot Saturday. They already have more victories than in any season since 2013-14.
At this point, though, Tulane’s focus is inward rather than outward.
“We’ve got to put ourselves in position where we know we can beat somebody,” Dunleavy said. “They (the opponent) can’t put a W up thinking they are playing us. They have to know they are entering a game we can win.”