Tulane’s athletics renaissance isn’t diminished by one loss

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Jaylen Forbes
(Photo: Parker Waters)

NEW ORLEANS – Milestone athletic events for the Tulane Green Wave are starting to happen regularly.

Just 15 days after arguably the biggest football victory in school history – the 46-45 victory over USC in the Cotton Bowl – hundreds of students lined up on McAlister Drive on Tuesday afternoon to be part of a sellout crowd to watch the surging Tulane men’s basketball team face No. 1-ranked Houston inside Fogelman Arena in Devlin Fieldhouse.

Green Wave coach Ron Hunter rightly pointed out a day earlier that the significance of the game was less the presence of the top-ranked Cougars than it was the fact that first place in the American Athletic Conference was at stake.

Tulane was 5-1 after winning five straight conference games and was nipping at the heels of first-place Houston (5-0), which had won eight consecutive games.

Too often in recent seasons excitement about athletic events at Tulane has primarily been generated by the presence of a marquee opponent.

But that’s changing.

It was the play of the home team that led to a sold-out and electrified gymnasium Tuesday night.

And even though the home team lost 80-60, Green Wave athletics appears to be in the midst of a renaissance. It’s in its early stages and we don’t exactly where it’s going to lead, but right it’s providing a boost to college athletics in the Crescent City that’s been lacking for decades.

Hunter is in his fourth season of rebuilding a once-proud program that was moribund when athletic director Troy Dannen plucked him from Georgia State in a move somewhat reminiscent of Dannen plucking football coach Willie Fritz from Georgia Southern in the new administrator’s first significant move in 2015.

Fritz’s oft-stated goal was to achieve “sustainable success” and after beginning his tenure with two losing seasons he took the Green Wave on an unprecedented run of three straight bowl games, before slipping to a 2-10 record amid a series of major challenges in 2021.

Then came the run last season that saw Tulane upset Cincinnati on the road to earn the right to host the ACC title game, then beat UCF in the title game at Yulman Stadium to set the stage for the Cotton Bowl milestone.

The start of Hunter’s tenure has been a struggle amid challenges that include the onset of COVID and complications from Hurricane Ida at the outset of the 2021-22 academic year.

But now Hunter’s program appears to be reaching a stage similar to the one Fritz’s reached with its first bowl appearance in 2018.

“This hasn’t been easy,” Hunter said, “but it’s been rewarding.”

The defeat to the more talented, deeper and better seasoned Cougars wasn’t rewarding, but nor was it discouraging.

At times the Green Wave appeared tight in the early going, falling behind by as many as 13 points in the first half, but they didn’t seem unprepared for the moment. After Jaylen Forbes converted a four-point play with 4.2 seconds left in the half, Tulane went into halftime trailing just 40-32.

Houston hadn’t played in six days, which was sufficient time for two key players who had missed an uneven performance in a six-point victory against South Florida to return.

Leading scorer Marcus Sasser scored the first eight points of the second half to knock the Wave back on their heals. Though staggered they didn’t fall, pulling within 54-49 midway through the half behind Forbes and Jalen Cook.

But Houston gradually extended the lead and demonstrated why it is the best team in the American and why it won’t be surprising if they get to stay at home and participate in the Final Four in April, just as they reached the Final Four two years ago.

When the game officially ended, Devlin was still mostly full and most of those still on hand stood and applauded the Green Wave. It was clear that they appreciated the effort, the competitiveness with the No. 1 team that surpassed what the final score suggests as well as the bright future that Hunter’s program has.

“This is about us maintaining and being one of the top teams in the league,” Hunter said Monday. “That’s something I wanted to do when I first took the job.

“We still have a long way to go to build this program, but we’re headed in the right direction.

During the second half, Fritz’s image was beamed from his courtside seat to be shown on the screens above the court as the crowd roared. He responded by gyrating a Go Wave message.

Hunter’s team has a ways to go to catch Fritz’s, but the most important thing is that the students to a large a degree and the community to a growing degree are excited because they have something worth getting excited about.

Hunter noted after the game that when he first arrived he would see “barely 200 people” in the stands.

“When I first got here and walked through campus there weren’t many people walking around in Tulane shirts,” Hunter said. “Now they’re walking around not only with Tulane shirts but in football and basketball shirts.

“Walking through campus feels different now than it did when I first got here. Athletics actually means something at Tulane; athletics actually means something in the city of New Orleans now.”

This night was a reminder that the Green Wave aren’t the equal of the best team in the American and they’re certainly not the equal of the No. 1 team in the country.

But more importantly it was a signal that Tulane’s two most prominent athletic programs are on the rise simultaneously or the first time in generations – and the campus and the Crescent City recognize it and appreciate it.

In his post-game news conference Hunter noted that this game had attracted the largest group of reporters he had seen since the day he was introduced as head coach. He quipped that when he saw the group waiting to talk to him on Monday that had to check with Dannen and make sure he hadn’t been fired because of the degree of interest.

Then he left with this: “The best is yet to come.”

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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