The Tulane Green Wave, who could have been Brothers in Big East basketball if the Big East's hoops schools hadn't made the decision to take the Big East name and rededicate the conference to basketball instead of mid-level football, come to Brooklyn to kick off the Barclays Brooklyn Winter Festival on Sunday for a 12:00 tip-off against #17/ #19 St. John's Red Storm, who are 10-1 on the season.
Early in the year, the matchup against the New Orleans outpost of the American Conference looked like a nice bit of post-Christmas leftover ham to feast on (or sweet potatoes, for the vegetarians, Jews, and Muslims out there) - a team weak on basketball history, despite their two defeats of St. John's (over Louie's Redmen in the 1992 NCAA Tournament and over Norm Roberts' Red Storm in 2007's Rainbow Classic).
But something funny happened in the Crescent City.
Tulane is kind of good.
To dig into the Green Wave's 9-2 record, guard-oriented man-to-man play, and emerging big men, we asked some questions from JP of the Fear The Wave blog (which truncates to "FTW" - clever). And give Fear the Wave a follow on the Twitter as well.
Qs... and As. And a hearty thanks to JP for reaching out! Our answers to their questions will be coming on the Fear the Wave site.
Rumble in the Garden: So what should we make of Tulane's season so far? The team is 9-2, but the opponents... well, there have been quite a few SWAC teams and low-level opponents, and the Green Wave lost to Washington and Wake Forest. So is this team good, bad, improved, not improved?
Fear the Wave: That is a fair assessment. The truth is -- we don't really know, for sure. In strength of schedule, Tulane ranks 344th so far, so it definitely puts a question mark next to the 9-2 record. For Green Wave fans, we have seen this story before, like in 2011 when the team started 10-0 before finishing with a losing record in Conference USA play.
With that said, it is starting to become clear that Tulane has noticeably improved, especially in the last game on the road against a surging Washington Huskies. Despite being out-sized, Tulane won on the boards and managed to keep the game close to the 2:00 mark. That was the type of game that Tulane regularly lost by 15-30 last year, to be honest.
The Green Wave has a lot to prove this season, and they will get some good chances in conference play in the American. They will have to answer the question of whether they are the sort of squad that hangs with good teams or beats good teams though.
RITG: Style-wise, Tulane looks to be a slash & draw fouls offense indicating the guards (at least) are athletic. The defense seems to be dependent on forcing opponents to shoot two-pointers and miss the infrequent threes they take. What are the upsides and downsides of this style? Can this team handle an opponent that doesn't WANT to take three-pointers?
FTW: To an extent, they have been able to get away with that style as a way to compensate for deficiencies in the paint (mainly in size).
In essence, a combination of the athleticism of the backcourt and hot shooting (Tulane ranked in the top 25 nationally in field goal percentage for much of the season) essentially covered for when the team would get beat badly down low by competent big men.
As you can guess, that works pretty well against Mississippi Valley State, but not as much against a team like Washington who showed off their ability to play above the rim like they were the Globetrotters.
In short, if a team can settle down and be patient with the ball against Tulane, they can find scoring opportunities inside. When a talented team does that, it would require the Green Wave to shoot the lights out to keep up.
RITG: Which players need to have a good game for the Wave to succeed on Sunday?
FTW: The three headed monster of Louis Dabney, Jay Hook, and Jonathan Stark. These are three talented guards who on any given night can produce, especially around the perimeter.
As I mentioned, success at the mid-range and long-range jumper will be necessary for this team. When Dabney had only two points midway through the second half against the Huskies, it really cramped the offense's style. My theory is that Tulane can keep up if two of these three are "on" during a game. When two or more are shut down, that is when things can really slow down for this offense, as we saw in an ugly loss to start the season against Wake Forest.
That being said, there are a few big men who are starting to make a name for themselves. Payton Henson is a sophomore who had his first double-double earlier this month and can produce when he gets the right shots.
In our last game, Dylan Osetkowski was the guy to watch. He was a bad dude. As a freshman coming off the bench, he had to stack up against the country's leading shot blocker, and he found some crazy buckets en route to leading the team in points. I have to think that gives Osetkowski a lot of confidence that he can hang with big time players, which is presence Tulane has not had for a while.
RITG: Tell us about the big man situation for Ed Conroy's team.
FTW: This is definitely a very developmental year for the big men on this team. Ryan Smith, who is the lone 6'10" guy with meaningful playing time, is only averaging 3.0 points per game so far this year. He really hasn't had a breakout game, and there isn't anyone else on the team with that kind of size.
That said, the two guys I just mentioned -- Henson and Osetkowski -- will determine what the game looks like in the paint. Tulane absolutely should have been out-rebounded by a much bigger Washington Huskies team, and the Green Wave ended up winning on the boards. Why?
A ton of hustle and energy from tipoff until the clock hit zero. It's a cliche, but a few guys on this team really stepped up, and that helped keep the game extremely close from start to finish.
RITG: How excited are you for the first year in the American Conference? Does it feel strange, considering the Wave signed on to join the Big East conference?
FTW: Just think: this could have been a regular matchup for St. John's fans! I kid, I kid.
That said, all but two of Tulane's games this year are televised or streamed on ESPN3. That is a world of difference from previous years.
Beyond that, Coach Ed Conroy is putting together the strongest class of his tenure. Especially because he really hasn't had a breakthrough type of year yet, I have to think a big part of the success on the recruiting trail comes down to the exposure and opportunity of this conference.
I think the crazy thing is how different AAC basketball is going to look this year from what we expected. The Green Wave was a solid pick for dead last in the preseason poll. Tulane is leading the conference through 11 games, and no one really has much of an identity so far this season.
With SMU coming off a nice road win over Michigan and Temple taking the subway to a game and then stomping Kansas in Philadelphia, it will be interesting to see who takes control in the next couple of months.
RITG: What's your prediction for Sunday's game?
FTW: I am anticipating this one being closer than expected too. Tulane is going to put up some fight on the boards and force turnovers, but I think St. John's defense is going to really test the Green Wave's shooting.
65-59 St. John's.