By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
Rankings can be incredibly deceiving. From an initial glance, the Billikens game this afternoon is a head-scratcher with many asking, “why exactly was this scheduled?”. The Tulane Green Wave won all of just four games last season, are picked to finish dead last in the AAC, are ranked 217th in the KenPom, and most confusingly the Bills flew to Phoenix, Arizona to play the game.
While the trip out west was undoubtedly frustrating for many, the impact of the away game was mitigated as the Billikens announced the game would be streamed live on ESPN+, a plan that finalized late yesterday afternoon.
The Tulane Green Wave are a far better team than their ranking suggests. The rankings, especially the KenPom, far better reflect last year’s team and not the one who has gone 7-1 to start its season. A myriad of changes from the top-down has changed the outlook on the program for the better.
After years at Georgia State, Ron Hunter took over the reins in New Orleans and has rejuvenated the program. After three consecutive 20-win seasons and back to back NCAA tournament appearances, Tulane has made the first step in returning to relevance by hiring a coach who knows how to get results. Hunter has put his mark on the program thus far by bringing in a group of transfers who have made an early impact since donning the green.
KJ Lawson, TeShaun Hightown, Jordan Walker, and Christian Thompson all transferred to Tulane after spending time at premier division 1 programs, playing at Kansas, Georgia, Seton Hall, and Rhode Island, respectively. The quartet brings experience and talent to the Green Wave that they haven’t had in many years, and to this point, they lead the team in all significant statistical categories.
What is currently going on at Tulane is a curious experiment of roster construction, running a team of virtually all transfers. The amount of continuity from last year to this year is so little that it ranks as 4th last in all of college basketball.
But it is not as if this group will disband after this year. The core group has multiple years of eligibility, and the more they come together as a group, the more their talents will shine.
Rounding out the Tulane lineup is a pair of underclassmen who have played supplemental, but effective roles, to the transfer group. Kevin Zhang is a 6’10” big man from Shenyang, China is in his sophomore season and has started four of eight games thus far. He has split the starting duty with Nobel Days, a 6’9” forward from Wisconsin. The pair split time at the center position and ultimately operate as a tandem 5th man in the starting group. Relative to the rest of the starting group, they are the weak link in the chain and a spot where the likes of Hasahn French (and potentially Jimmy Bell Jr.) will be able to take advantage.
The point of emphasis for the Billikens this afternoon will be playing active, responsible defense, and forcing the opposition to make tough choices against their offense.
The Green Wave plays an offense built around a lot of movement, ball screens, and forcing the defense to switch into mismatches. Tulane will want to confuse the sometimes-disorganized Billikens with their frenetic action, and if the Billikens allow them to play their way on offense, it most likely will be a long afternoon.
On offense for the Bills, they will once again have the matchup advantage down low and on the glass. As good as KJ Lawson is, rebounding is not his strongest suit, and the Billikens will be able to outmatch Tulane with capable rebounders. Similarly, they struggle to defend the interior when faced with a strong inside player. Jimmy Bell Jr could be a candidate for a breakout game, or at the very least, will play a vital role in the offensive scheme.
Travis Ford has often talked about how, when his guards play their best, they force defenses to make choices. They can either guard Hasahn French or, they can defend the perimeter. They cannot effectively do both. If the Billikens more dynamic scorers are not able to set a tone early, that decision becomes a lot easier. Though there will be ample opportunities for the scorers to create space and keep Tulane from packing the paint, the longer the Green Wave stays in the game, the worse off the Bills will be.
Tulane’s strength of schedule is weak. SLU is arguably the second-best team they’ve played, with their one loss to Mississippi State being the only top 100 team they’ve faced. The single other notable opponent the Green Wave has faced is Utah, who was ranked 108 at the time in the KenPom compared to Saint Louis’ current 110. The Billikens should be seen as favorites in this one. But considering all the talent Tulane has brought in, with the game played at a neutral site, it is far closer a matchup than the “rankings” would suggest.
By the time March rolls around, I’m confident this game will be seen as far more respectable than the current rankings suggest. But for now, the Billikens face a trap game. Before the team departed St. Louis, many of the players referred to the game as a “Business Trip.” It’s a good thing they are setting that tone because they will need to take care of business in Phoenix to avoid disaster.