It’s not often a team gains confidence from a 17-point loss at home.
Yet, that’s exactly what Tulane men’s basketball coach Ed Conroy and his players insist happened Thursday at Devlin Fieldhouse. After falling to regular season co-champion Southern Miss 68-51, the Green Wave enters the Conference USA tournament with the belief that it can hang around El Paso, Texas, longer than anyone expects.
Tulane (16-15, 8-8), the No. 7 seed, opens 1 p.m. Wednesday against No. 10 seeded North Texas (15-15, 6-10), which rallied past 15th-seeded Rice 63-62 in overtime in the first round Tuesday. The Green Wave beat the Mean Green 73-62 on the road in January.
“We’re going down there to win,” Conroy said before the Wave left New Orleans. “There were a lot of positives in that (Southern Miss) game. The final score might not have indicated as such, but our players made some good adjustments.”
Look no further than Tulane’s two games with Southern Miss for evidence. In a 78-47 loss in Hattiesburg on Feb. 1, the Golden Eagles went 3 for 13 on 3-pointers and still walloped the Wave, turning the second half into a dunkathon.
On Thursday, USM shot a torrid 11 for 20 from long range but led by single digits with less than six minutes remaining before pulling away.
“It wasn’t good that we gave up that many 3s, but overall our defense was pretty good,” sophomore guard Louis Dabney said. “It’s a great sign of how we’ve grown as a team. For us to push them as hard as we did showed that we are getting better.”
Conroy pointed to other positive numbers. Freshman point guard Jonathan Stark, who was named to the all-conference freshman team on Tuesday, handed out seven assists — his most since Jan. 18 against Rice. Tulane had more assists (15) than turnovers (14) for only the third time in conference play, leading to a C-USA-best 12 points for senior center Tomas Bruha on an assortment of dunks and layups.
“From a floor general aspect that was (Stark’s) best game of the year,” Conroy said. “His poise out there was inspiring. He’s really grown up as a point guard, and you saw that with some of his passes. He was calm and in control the entire night.”
To make an extended run in El Paso, though, Tulane has to buck history and much of what happened this season. Playing in the Conference USA tournament for the 19th and final time before joining the American Athletic Conference, the Wave is 8-18 overall in the event and never has won more than one game in a year.
Tulane lost five conference games by 26 points or more in the regular season, including once each to co-champions Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Middle Tennessee and USM. If Tulane beats North Texas, it advances to a Friday game against No. 2 seed Tulsa, which exploded for 60 first-half points in a 97-71 conference-opening rout of the Wave.
Tulane also has lost two in a row, falling to Florida International 73-47 before running into USM.
Still, the .500 mark and seventh-place finish were considerably better than preseason projections, providing another source of confidence. After losing first-team All-Conference USA forward Josh Davis and 2011-12 C-USA Freshman of the Year Ricky Tarrant to transfers, Tulane returned no player who averaged 5.0 points last season.
The guard trio of Stark, Dabney and junior Jay Hook has carried almost all of the scoring load.
“We’re in a great position,” said Hook, the C-USA leader in 3-point percentage (.477). “Our plan is to win the championship, and we have to take whoever we play with all seriousness knowing that we can advance. It’s actually really crazy how a team can develop as fast as we have. We just play with each other so much more freely after playing with each other for a while.”
Stark was one of six freshmen named to the C-USA All-Freshman team, joining Marquan Botley of Florida Atlantic, Marshall’s Kareem Canty and Ryan Taylor, Rice’s Sean Obi and UTEP’s Vince Hunter.
Starting every game, Stark averaged 14.2 points, 4.2 assists and 2.7 rebounds. He earned freshman-of-the-week honors three times and was named Player of the Week once after scoring 25 points against Washington in December while matched up against McDonald’s All-America freshman Nigel Williams-Goss.
“He has outstanding coachability and has been aggressive all season long,” Conroy said. “He has really developed because he has attacked every practice and every game with a lot of enthusiasm and energy.”