How do you lose two pros and get better?
That is the question Tulane men’s basketball coach Mike Dunleavy will try to answer in year No. 3 of his tenure.
The Green Wave practiced for the first time Wednesday afternoon, moving forward without second-round NBA draft pick Melvin Frazier (Orlando Magic), who enjoyed a breakout season as a junior, and Cameron Reynolds, who signed a contract with the Sacramento Kings this week.
Even with that duo averaging 31.0 points, 11.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists, Tulane won only five American Athletic Conference games, finishing 14-17 overall. That record still represented a significant improvement from the Wave’s 6-25 mark (3-15 in the AAC) in Dunleavy’s first season, but another jump will not be easy.
“It’s going to have to be through everybody, not necessarily one guy,” Dunleavy said. “Everybody is going to have to take it up a couple of notches, and we’ve got good depth, so our hope is our starters won’t have to play as many minutes and we can get good production off our bench.”
Starting point guard Ray Ona Embo (10.1 points, 3.3 assists), who flirted with staying in the NBA draft, will miss the first two to three weeks of preseason practice after having surgery to deal with patellar tendinitis. He was on crutches Wednesday, but Dunleavy expects him to return long before the exhibition opener against Loyola on Nov. 1.
“It’s nothing major,” Dunleavy said. “We’re good.”
The other returning starters are senior guard Jordan Cornish (9.9 points, 3.3 assists) and senior center Blake Paul (3.3 points, 3.1 rebounds), who had hernia surgery over the summer. Junior forward Samir Sehic, the AAC leader in field goal percentage (.572), and athletic sophomore St. Aug grad Caleb Daniels (6.4 points) are the top returners off the bench.
The Wave could lean heavily on a talented freshman signing class that includes 6-foot-6 guard Connor Crabtree, 6-9 swingman Kevin Zhang and 6-8 swingman Moses Wood, as well as 7-foot redshirt freshman center Buay Koka, whom Dunleavy labeled one of his most improved players.
Crabtree stuck with Tulane despite a late push from Memphis. Zhang took an official visit to UCLA and also considered BYU. Wood picked Tulane over La Salle.
“Your goals are always to make a tournament, obviously, and for us to do that, it would mean our three freshmen are going to have to step up pretty good for us,” Dunleavy said.
“All three are bringing to the table what we thought they would bring to the table. Connor and Moses shoot the ball and make plays. Kevin is a big-time athlete who can shoot the 3 and pass the ball. By the time he leaves, he will do things you probably won’t see very many guys do.”
Koka was not ready physically last season, playing a total of 27 minutes over seven games. A year in the weight room has helped him bulk up a skinny frame.
“I see his defensive game being a big impact right away,” Dunleavy said. “His offensive game is going to grow and grow and grow.”
Sophomore forward Bul Ajang and redshirt freshman guard Shakwon Barrett round out the eligible scholarship roster. Seton Hall transfer guard Jordan Walker will practice but has to sit out the season per NCAA rules.
The Wave has a month and a half before its Nov. 11 opener against Florida State to figure out how to play without Frazier and Reynolds.
“Step one is building chemistry on the court,” Sehic said. “We lost two guys we really relied on every single game, so everyone has to step up to fill those two voids.”
Cornish, a Brother Martin alum in his second year with the Wave after transferring from UNLV, believes it can be done.
“We’re deeper at every position this year,” he said. “The returning guys became better and we’re getting the (freshmen) up to speed as fast as possible.”