Youth major factor for Tulane, UNO basketball

Tulane basketball coach Ed Conroy and UNO basketball coach Mark Slessinger had lunch together Thursday, a day before the start of preseason practice. Although the two teams aren’t playing each other this year, they had plenty in common to discuss.

Conroy has seven scholarship freshmen on his roster, the result of a mass transfer at the end of the 2012-13 season. Slessinger tops him with eight newcomers with UNO making a full-fledged commitment to Division I and returning to the NCAA maximum of 13 scholarships.

Young and inexperienced, meet young and inexperienced.

“This group has a lot of potential,” Conroy said. “Obviously, the early part of the season and these early practices are going to be a little bit of an adventure because it is all so new. In college basketball, it’s become where you have a lot of roster turnover. You need to be able to teach and teach quickly, and players need to be able to adjust. It will be great to get out there on the floor on Friday.”

Former Tulane point guard Ricky Tarrant, the Conference USA Freshman of the Year in 2011-12, transferred to Alabama. Power forward Josh Davis, a first-team all-C-USA selection in 2012-13, left for San Diego State, where he will complete his final year of eligibility as a graduate student.

Throw in the departure of 3-point shooting specialist Ben Cherry (Charlotte) along with bench players Lotanna Nwogbo and RaAnthony Sanders, and Tulane returns no one who averaged five points, made more than 15 3-point shots or handed out more than 16 assists.

Coming off Tulane’s first 20-win season since 1999-2000, Conroy reacted by signing four freshmen in the spring after getting three last fall. The seven newcomers join a nucleus of sophomores Louis Dabney and Kajon Mack, junior Tre Drye of Glen Oaks, oft-injured senior center Thomas Bruha, reserve guard Jay Hook and little-used senior post player Kevin Thomas.

Drye was the only regular starter last year, averaging 4.6 points and 5.0 rebounds while playing out of position at center.

“I’ve been through it all before,” said Conroy, entering his fourth year at Tulane. “My second team at The Citadel, we actually started five freshmen, and that was a group that a year later won 20 games. It’s not always easy, and it presents challenges, but it’s hard to be around this particular group and not get energized and have a smile on your face because there’s so many new moments for everyone.”

Tulane, which would have been projected as a contender in Conference USA with the departure of former league kingpin Memphis, will start near the bottom without Tarrant and Davis. Conroy, though, isn’t giving up on the season before it starts.

“I don’t want to put a lid on this group,” he said. “We have to get better each and every day, but I think this team has the ability to be playing as well as anybody towards the end of the year. That’s where we want to be.”

Slessinger is happy to be in a league for the first time in his three years at UNO after two season of limbo as the school decided to drop to a lower division then reversed course. The Privateers, who went 8-18 in 2012-13, joined the Southland Conference and will play a full league schedule.

Ineligible for the conference tournament because of NCAA Academic Progress Rate deficiencies, they still can compete for the regular-season title.

“We had virtually the entire team here over the summer (for individual and small-group workouts), and that helped a lot just for guys to get to know each other,” Slessinger said. “We’ll hopefully be a little bit ahead of the curve, but still it’s going to take the preseason for us to jell and figure out where all the pieces fit.”

Senior forward Cory Dixon, who averaged 8.7 points and 5.1 rebounds, leads five returning players.

The list includes senior guards Traddarius McPhearson, a good defender who averaged 6.2 points, and Isaac Mack.

Forward Matt Derenbecker, a Metairie Country Day product who transferred from Dayton after also spending a year at LSU, likely will be have to sit out a year as a transfer. Slessinger said the NCAA had not ruled on UNO’s hardship appeal for Derenbecker.

With all of that youth, Conroy and Slessinger have something else in common, too. They like the NCAA’s new rule that allows teams to practice 30 times in the 42 days leading up to their first game, getting a two-week head start on previous years.

“The earlier time is good,” Slessinger said. “You just have to be mindful of not burning them out.”