If you have not done so already, please take a few minutes to check out our first set of way too early 2020-21 AAC men’s basketball previews. It covers Houston, Cincy and Memphis who are respectively 3 teams with no shortage of intrigue.
Since this preview series isn’t an attempt to do a pre-season ranking, I realized I could get creative with the order and thus today I’ll be previewing all 3 AAC member schools whose initials are TU.
Eat your heart out Towson, Tufts and Trinity Universities we’re talking about the Owls, Golden Hurricane and Green Wave!
And of course, please take the necessary precautions in your day to day lives as we deal with the impact of COVID-19.
2019-20 Record: 21-10 overall, 13-5 AAC (T-1st)
Final KenPom Ranking: 80
Final NET Ranking: 78
I don’t know if I can remember the last time an AAC team had more dramatically different non-conference and conference portions of the season. Just prior to the beginning of conference play on the Pawdcast, the 2 of us looked at our 4 pre-season tiers and seriously debated whether the Golden Hurricane belonged in the 4th/lowest tier of teams. They were blown out by the only top 50 KenPom team they faced in non-conference (Arkansas) and took losses to 2 bottom half Sun Belt teams. There was no reason to think that things would get better, and then conference play happened.
The Golden Hurricane won 7 of their first 8 conference games, including beating Houston and a shocking blowout win where they doubled up the score on Memphis. The ‘why’ of Tulsa’s dramatic turnaround was pretty simple: they only lost 1 conference home game and defended at an elite level once the calendar turned to January. Newcomer Brandon Rachal energized an experienced group of returners, highlighted by Martins Igbanu and Jeriah Horne in the frontcourt and Elijah Joiner, Lawson Korita and Darien Jackson in the backcourt. They were still a flawed team (see: blowout losses to Houston, UConn and Cincy) but easily the best one since the Golden Hurricane made the 2015-16 NCAA Tournament in coach Frank Haith’s 2nd season.
Barring unexpected departures, everyone but Igbanu and Korita is projected to return in 2020-21. I am not going to underplay Igbanu’s value as a big man and he was the Golden Hurricane’s leading scorer this past season. But after him, the next 4 top scorers return and the top 2 rebounders. I have used nearly all of the media at my disposal to question Haith’s coaching ability over the years, but you don’t defend as well as the 2019-20 team did without good coaching.
Other than Houston, I don’t know if there’s a team I am higher on the American than Tulsa. There are still questions: mainly: can they periodically be an efficient offense? Even with their senior big man Igbanu playing out of his skin, the Golden Hurricane were only the 7th most efficient offense in AAC play. And this wasn’t a good offensive rebounding team with Igbanu and I can’t imagine it improving now that the big man is gone. But, even with these questions I still think this team is a safe bet. They were basically neck and neck with Houston for best AAC defense after the season and unlike Houston did it while fouling less than anyone in the league. I also expect the offense to look a little smoother now that guys like Rachal, Joiner, Horne and Jackson have played with each other a full year.
Stylistically, I don’t expect this will turn into a team of offensive savants, but its past the point where you can question the thought of this team winning the league.
Confidence Interval: 1st to 4th
2019-20 Record: 14-17 overall, 6-12 AAC
Final KenPom Ranking: 115
Final NET Ranking: 116
This team was kind of the anti-Tulsa, in that the Owls drastically under performed what I expected from them last Fall. Maybe I should have weighted the retirement of former Owl coach and Philly legend Fran Dunphy a little heavier. But even the Owls’ non-conference gave no sign of a precipitous collapse: a road win at a USC team that was a lock for the NCAA Tournament, a close loss to Big Ten champion Maryland (not to mention utterly humiliating Texas A&M). The Owls were 9-3 after a close home win on New Years Eve over UCF to open conference play and only won 5 more times before the roof caved in.
The ‘why’ of how the past year went so sideways for the Owls was simple: they couldn’t make shots. In 12 of the 19 games this calendar year the team field goal percentage was under 40%. Returning starters Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis were expected to carry the scoring load and neither player ever really got on track offensively. Monty Scott, a junior transfer from Kennesaw State, had a couple of monster games but wasn’t ever close to being a consistent offensive threat. Maybe Josh Pierre-Louis develops into a good college guard, but his freshman season didn’t give us much useful information. It feels like ages since the Owls had a frontcourt player who was anything worth writing about. Perhaps Jake Forrester develops into a good AAC power forward, but he’s not there yet. Ditto for fellow forward De’Vondre Perry.
Fixing an Owl offense that was the worst in the KenPom era by a wide margin (217th nationally) will be job number one for coach Aaron McKie as he enters his 2nd year. He’ll have do it without his scoring and assist leader Rose. He had a rough senior year, but I watched him torch good Cougar teams often enough that I developed an immense respect for his game. I think Nate Pierre-Louis is an All-AAC player if he gets things figured out on the offensive end, because he’s always going to be a positive defensively.
There’s so much unknown on this roster outside of the older Pierre-Louis, though. Maybe Scott, Perry and Forrester make the jump from inconsistent bench guys to regular starters, but that’s not a guarantee. Ditto for the younger Pierre-Louis playing up to his recruiting pedigree as a high 3-star and Temple’s 4th highest ever rated signee. Tai Strickland, a transfer from Wisconsin, could take over at point guard but he hasn’t played enough college ball for me to feel wildly confident in him being a big contributor. And that’s it, that’s 5 guys I feel are worth even a token mention in a preview. I like both Owls’ class of 2020 signees, but I am not sure either is ready to be more than a role player as a freshman.
It is way too early to make any bold proclamations about whether McKie is a good coach. It will probably be too early in about 12 months, when hopefully we’re all talking about the return of March Madness. But I was surprised at how bad the 2019-20 team looked by the end of the year. I figured at worst a recent assistant like McKie would get this team to the NIT and have the Owls around 6th-8th in the standings. You should give all year one coaches mulligans, but its hard to find the positives from McKie’s first squad or the signs that a rapid improvement is coming any time soon.
Confidence Interval: 8th to 11th
2019-20 Record: 12-18 overall, 4-14 AAC (12th)
Final KenPom Ranking: 185
Final NET Ranking: 168
I will say this about Green Wave coach Ron Hunter, he put Tulane basketball on my radar more than it ever was previously. Some of that is Hunter almost comically playing the pro wrestling villain with Houston at 2 different schools. Or it could be that he guaranteed in the pre-season that Tulane wouldn’t finish in last place (the team did finish in last) and that he would walk on Lake Pontchartrain if they did (he should probably avoid doing this for a while). But equally as importantly its because behind all the bluster Hunter could be the best coach out there to change this program’s culture.
Consider that Hunter came to New Orleans as the inarguable best coach in program history at his previous 2 stops (IUPUI, Georgia State). That he was willing to take on the challenge of a Tulane program with a 25-year NCAA Tournament drought speaks to the strength of the people running the show in athletics. He had to basically build a roster from scratch and considering that handicap I think the team did about as well as you’d reasonably expect. It reminds me a lot of Brian Gregory’s first year at USF: not great, but starting to develop an identity.
Grad transfers like KJ Lawson, Christion Thompson and Nic Thomas along with the immediately eligible Teshaun Hightower were effective stopgaps. I thought Jordan Walker showed promise, considering 2019-20 was the first time he saw extended minutes at the Division 1 level. Someday Kevin Zhang might someday become an effective stretch big man. He has the shot, he just needs to get a little meaner in the paint.
Returning Hightower and Walker is a pretty solid 1-2, but what tempers my enthusiasm a bit about Tulane’s prospects is they weren’t exactly a young 12th place team. 3 of the top 5 scorers are now departed grad transfers and with only 2 freshmen coming in I wonder if Hunter goes after more grad transfers. I saw going transfer-heavy help UH a ton early during their rebuild, so I think the strategy isn’t a bad one. It can be a hard cycle to get out of though.
I’m not super confident about the Green Wave escaping the basement yet. His antics will rub people the wrong way, but I can’t imagine anyone else more qualified to win here that actually is willing to take the job than Hunter. I’ll be interested to see what this team looks like in year 3 or 4 under Hunter.
Confidence Interval: 9th to 11th