Contender or pretender? Tulane tries to prove its worth in C-USA hoops

NEW ORLEANS — It’s the beginning of the end for Conference USA basketball as
everyone knows it.

Despite realignment moving in a seemingly endless churn and the league’s schools in a state of flux, this group of 12 basketball teams still finds itself attached with familiar opponents. Before Memphis, Houston, Central Florida and SMU depart for the Big East this summer (followed by Tulane and East Carolina in 2014), there’s still one last championship to play for.

It’s all Tulane coach Ed Conroy can focus on, and with good reason. The Green Wave (12-3) has won nine of its past 10 games and rides a five game winning streak into its conference opener at 7 p.m. today against UTEP (6-6) in Devlin Fieldhouse.

“We understand there’s a lot of movement in the league and things are going to be changing a lot after this year, but right now, we’re only going to concern ourselves with things we can control,” Conroy said. “For now, that is doing whatever we can to win games in the league and compete for a championship. We’re excited to get started on that.”

There’s ample evidence to believe
Tulane has its best opportunity since Conroy’s arrival to compete near the top of the league’s standings following last-place finishes (and combined 6-26 league record) in each of his previous two seasons.

Not only is Conference USA rated a dismal 11th in overall conference RPI, according to CBSSports.com, but a healthy and versatile Tulane roster propelled the Green Wave up the statistical charts. The Green Wave leads the league in scoring defense (allowing 56.7 points per game) and rebounding margin (hauling in 7.3 more rebounds than its opponent per game). Even after transitioning to a smaller lineup in mid-December to increase offensive productivity, Tulane’s defensive and rebounding production improved.

“I don’t think there’s any question that in the last five games we have just been a better team,” Conroy said. “We have been more consistent and any measure you use shows it. You can look at statistics or you can just watch us play, and it’s clear we’ve played better. I still think we have a higher ceiling though and I hope we can reach a different level in conference play.”

The room for growth mostly comes from the performance of preseason all-Conference USA guard Ricky Tarrant, who has struggled to recapture his prolific shooting stroke which earned him C-USA’s Freshman of the Year award last year. Tarrant has converted just 35 percent of his shots, including 27 percent from three-point range but did knock down three 3-pointers in the second half of Tulane’s 62-48 win over Wofford last Friday.

“I know I can play better, and hopefully that game got me going,” Tarrant said. “But we play as a team and we’ve been winning as a team, so I just give credit to all the guys around me for pulling us through.”

The praise is particularly warranted for forward Josh Davis, who leads Conference USA in scoring (18.1) and rebounding (10.3) and has provided Tulane with a post presence it has lacked for over five seasons. Davis has also allowed Conroy to play a quicker lineup, substituting center Tomas Bruha for smaller forwards, significantly aiding Tulane’s defense on the wings and the perimeter.

The junior’s production under the
basket is a pivotal reason Conroy believes his team is more prepared for conference play than ever before.

“Due to injuries, we became pretty one-dimensional the past two years,” Conroy said. “Now, because we’re healthy and the emergence of Josh, we have a more versatile attack and as we go through the league now it allows us to be more consistent and also let’s us match up against all different kinds of defenses.

“I’m excited about league play because I’m anxious to watch this team keep growing, and I think they’re getting tougher to beat all of the time. I want to see how they step up to that challenge.”