Winless since December, the short-handed Tulane men’s basketball team needs two factors in its favor to compete at Memphis on Wednesday.
If Kevin Zhang’s shots fall early while Tigers’ star Jeremiah Martin’s shots find the rim, the Green Wave (4-20, 0-12 American Athletic Conference) can make it interesting. Without that reversal of form for both players, it figures to be another frustrating night in a season that turned sour a long time ago.
Zhang, a talented 6-foot-9 freshman, scored 25 points in Tulane’s 83-79 home loss to Memphis (15-11, 7-6) on Jan. 13. He is capable of those outbursts but has been deadly silent lately, missing 13 consecutive shots since scoring in the second half against Wichita State on Feb. 9.
He is equally as cold from 3-point range, clanking 14 in a row after making a pair in the early minutes at East Carolina on Jan. 31.
“Right now we’re trying to figure out a ways to get him some good looks,” coach Mike Dunleavy said. “Sometimes he’s been open and hasn’t gotten the ball in timely fashion. Other times he’s started thinking about it and passed when he should have shot. It’s just one of those things young guys go through.”
Zhang’s point total in the first meeting with Memphis are the most for a Tulane player in a conference game this year, and it was not the first time he went off. He began his career with 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting against then-No. 17 Florida State and had 23 points against Sun Belt Conference favorite Georgia State later in November.
The Wave is a different team when he plays like that, hanging with good opponents. The blowouts happen when he hangs his head.
“The main thing is (for him to) keep playing hard,” Dunleavy said. “It’s all about effort. Kevin had a couple of 3s early (against Houston on Sunday) that went in and out. If they go down, he can explode.”
Martin explodes on a nightly basis for Memphis.
Since emerging from a shooting slump with 27 points against Tulane in January, he has been hard to handle for just about anyone. He torched South Florida for 41 points in the second half alone, scored 28 against Temple, 26 against Cincinnati, 31 against East Carolina and 25 against Central Florida.
“He’s got great speed off the dribble, he can pull up and he can make shots,” Dunleavy said. “Players like that, you try not to let them get easy scores early in games. You don’t want to let them see the ball go through the basket. When great scorers have success early, potentially you are in for a long night.”
The Tigers have won five of six at home in AAC play, including a 77-57 pasting of NCAA tournament hopeful UCF. Almost nothing favors Tulane as it tries to end a 14-game slide that is tied with California's for the third longest in the country behind San Jose State’s and Chicago State’s 15-game losing streaks.
Zhang is the wild card.
Playing out of position at power forward because of season-ending injuries to starting center Buay Koka and reserve Bul Ajang, he should fare better against Memphis than Houston, when Dunleavy brought him off the bench for the first time in 10 games because he needed two legitimate big men to combat the Cougars’ size.
“He isn’t getting great matchups out there,” Dunleavy said. “We think he is going to be able to play both (forward) positions, but body-wide it wasn’t what we were counting on this year.”