By Jacob Wasserman
It’s a Tuesday night in mid-February, and the Tulane Green Wave Men’s Basketball team trots on to the hardwood of Fogelman Arena, hoping to win their first game in 2019. With only eight games left in the regular season the team is in search of some inspiration, but they are unlikely to find it in Uptown New Orleans, where fans fill 30 percent of the stadium’s capacity on an average gameday. The athletic department encourages student attendance by giving three fans the chance to make a half-court shot for a year’s worth of tuition ($56,800), but that is merely enough to put a dozen Tulanians in the student section. The members of the Green Wave sluggishly go through their lay-up line routine, and screeches from sneakers echo through the gymnasium. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” begins to blare through the overhead speakers, but the meager crowd can sense the home team has already been rocked. And deservedly so, they’re playing for the worst team in school history.
The Green Wave eventually fall to the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes in a 23-point defeat. Their thirteenth straight loss marks the longest losing-streak in the past 55 years of the program, but the woes of Tulane basketball endure. They go on to lose their remaining nine games, ending the season on a 21-game losing streak with an overall record of 4-27. For the first time in the program’s 109-year history, the Green Wave go winless in American Athletic Conference (0-18).
“I’ve never covered a team that bad before,” says Juan Kincaid, the 18-year sports director for WVUE News. “They didn’t win a game in 2019. There is zero excuse to go winless in conference.”
Tulane was once among the most respected teams in college basketball, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament three times in a four year span (‘91, ‘92, ‘95). Yet, they have been unable to find any success since the turn of the millennium.
In the spring of 2016, Tulane made national headlines by hiring coach Mike Dunleavy, who had been an acclaimed NBA coach for over two decades. Despite having no experience in the realm of college basketball, this was a mere oversight in Dunleavy’s illustrious career. After signing a six-year deal with Green Wave, the Dunleavy tenure commenced with a last place finish in the AAC, and an overall record of 6-25.
“I have seen programs try to bring in big name coaches, and sometimes it’s just not a fit,” says Kincaid.
Dunleavy was off to a poor start, but the following season provided Tulane fans with hope for the future. The Green Wave won an additional eight games, lead by their breakout star Melvin Frazier Jr. who was named the AAC’s Most Improved Player. Frazier had one year of eligibility left at Tulane, but declared for the 2018 NBA Draft in early March. However, by deciding to not hire an agent, Frazier left the possibility of rejoining the Green Wave wide open. With two months to prepare for the potential departure of his star player, Dunleavy had time to adjust and restructure his team for the upcoming season.
“Their recruiting class needed to be better if they knew guys were going to leave,” says Sean Fazende, sports reporter of WVUE News. “A selling point to recruits should be, ‘you can come and play right away’, but is that enough to get a kid who wants to be a part of a rebuilding process?”
In May, Frazier decided to enter the NBA draft, along with senior guard Cameron Reynolds who was the team’s leading scorer. Problems for the Tulane Basketball continued, as the former NBA coach was unable to lure a sufficient amount of high school recruits. Instead, coach Dunleavy replaced his two best players with small recruiting class of three. His lackluster approach to the 2018-2019 season produced perpetuating issues for the Green Wave. Before Tulane played their first game, they already lost their starting point guard, Ray Ona Embo, to a season-ending knee injury. With a shorthanded roster, Dunleavy was forced to utilize his inexperienced freshman guards. The starting lineup was given extensive playing time in a tiring eight-man rotation, and poor results came as a result. In the American Athletic Conference, the Green Wave finished dead last in points, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage.
“The American Conference is very competitive for basketball, so every game was a battle,” says Connor Crabtree, a freshman guard for the Green Wave.
“I can only imagine what the mood was like in the locker room, especially towards the end of the year,” says Kincaid. “Think of the seniors who never expected their final season to end up like that.”
In 2017, Samir Sehic and Jordan Cornish opted to transfer from reputable basketball programs (Vanderbilt and UNLV) in the hopes of receiving more playing time at Tulane. Through the course of two seasons, both distinguished themselves by participating in all 62 games for the Green Wave. Since Sehic and Cornish had become assimilated to Tulane’s unique basketball culture, this past season they served as leaders inside the locker room.
“It was definitely hard going through those times,” says Sehic. “The best way to motivate each other was by constantly talking within our team. Knowing that we had to keep pushing for the guy next to you. Communication is key in times of struggle.”
“I just told the young guys to keep their heads high and look forward to the next game, because we can’t get that one back,” says Cornish. “We never thought about the last game, always the next.”
The seniors’ optimistic approach influenced the Green Wave’s newcomers during times of hardship.
“During a season like the one we just had, it’s hard as hell to stay together and consistently give it your all every practice and every game,” says Crabtree. “But I will say, I think we never quit on ourselves or each other. When times were tough, we went even harder in practice. All of that is just personal pride.”
Spirits remain high, but Tulane Basketball still sits at an all-time low. However, athletic director Troy Dannen is acting swiftly during this rebuilding process. He fired coach Dunleavy shortly after the season came to a close, despite promising in mid-February that his job was “100 percent” secure. Tulane has made an exceptional investment to revitalize their basketball program, but will have to accept the remainder of Dunleavy’s contract as a sunk cost.
Coach Ron Hunter has recently been named the new leader of the Green Wave. He has been labeled as a “program changer” due to his success coaching mid-major Division I basketball programs. He most recently served as the head coach for the Georgia State Panthers, reaching the NCAA Tournament three times in the past five years. Before Hunter’s arrival, Georgia State had a losing record in their previous ten seasons.
Hunter’s commitment is not a topic of concern, as college basketball fans may remember him coaching in the 2015 NCAA Tournament with a torn achilles. The injury occured while previously celebrating Georgia State’s win in the Sun Belt Championship, which forced him to sit on a rolling desk chair as his team faced third-seeded Baylor. Hunter fell flat on his chest after his son, R.J, made the last-second, game winning three point shot, giving Georgia State the improbable victory and turning Hunter into an internet sensation.
“Ron Hunter is a coach with a lot of energy and passion that has resulted in previous success, which I believe he can have here,” says Sehic.
“The new coaching staff comes from a winning program and seems to know how to win,” says Crabtree. “The most important thing for them to create day-one is a culture, because we didn’t have one last year.”
Giving the Green Wave a new identity seems to be unanimously agreed upon, but of course, there is no guaranteed path to make it happen. Hiring a big fish from a small pond proved to be a successful strategy for Tulane Football, where coach Willie Fritz recently lead the program to its first winning season in five years. But this isn’t football, this is basketball. Unlike Dunleavy, this will be the biggest job of Hunter’s coaching career. He has proven to be a winner thus far, but his momentum may shift once he faces greater competition.
The American Athletic Conference recently agreed to a new 12-year, $1 billion media right deal with ESPN, meaning Tulane now plays in a power conference. Now it’s time for the Green Wave start acting like it. The Ron Hunter hire is a gamble for both parties, and if it doesn’t work out for Tulane — well it won’t be the first time.