Tulsa Moves Closer to the National Conversation

Posted by Eli Linton on January 14th, 2015

Tulsa fans streamed into the Reynolds Center last night to watch their Golden Hurricane thrash UConn by eight points in a highly-anticipated AAC match-up. I have been coming to games in this building for several years now, and I have never seen a pregame buzz like this one. As the home team took control of the game from the very start, it was clear that this was a completely different team than the one that stunk up the joint against Oklahoma in December. Another noticeable thing was that a lot of the fans wore the old-school, gold-and-red Hurricane sweatshirts. The buzz, the old team colors, Tulsa’s play on the court — it was very reminiscent of the days when Tulsa was making runs to the Sweet Sixteen (1994; 1995) and Elite Eight (2000). It makes you wonder if this year’s team, now 11-5 overall and 4-0 in its inaugural season of AAC play, has found some of its old mojo.

Despite the terrible tee, the Golden Hurricane faithful were out in full force. (Cory Young/ Tulsa World)

Despite the terrible tee, the Golden Hurricane faithful were out in full force. (Cory Young/ Tulsa World)

Fresno, California, in the late 1990s was the (almost) perfect place and time for a kid like myself to be a college basketball fan. Jerry Tarkanian — then employed by Fresno State — and his nasty towel were paramount in my world, and the wild and woolly Western Athletic Conference was still in its heyday. With three legendary coaches and plenty of future NBA talent in the league, it was one of the original homes of Cinderella. At least it was for me. Tulsa — at the time coached by Bill Self, and Tubby Smith during the mid-1990s — was always near the top of those crazy, 16-team standings, and they were the team that you just hated to see come to town. As I sat on press row on Tuesday night reflecting about those teams, I couldn’t help but think that the success of those glory years under Smith and Self were the reason many of those people were back on this night. They hadn’t experienced the same buzz in that building for a long time, either.

After Tulsa’s Elite Eight run 15 years ago, Self’s departure to Illinois set in motion the program’s steady descent back to earth. After a couple of Round of 32 runs from his successor, John Phillips, the Golden Hurricane were absent from the NCAA Tournament for over a decade until the arrival of Self’s disciple, Danny Manning, who steered the team back last season. Now under the new leadership of Frank Haith and after starting conference play with an unbeaten record that includes a signature win over last year’s National Champion, can Tulsa take the next step and again enter the national conversation?

It has an experienced squad, with all juniors among the starting five. With some of the younger but highly-ranked teams recently experiencing problems, Tulsa’s familiarity and team chemistry could make for a nice advantage in the postseason. They are led by a three-headed monster of James Woodard, Shaquille Harrison and Rashad Smith, and Manning’s hallmark team defense has remained suffocating (30th most-efficient nationally). Tulsa held the Huskies to 0.91 points per possession last night, and Ryan Boatright, the Huskies’ star who entered the game averaging 16.3 points per game, was held to have that number on 3-of-10 shooting. The American has some interesting teams beyond Tulsa and UConn — Temple, Cincinnati and SMU will be heard from — but the Golden Hurricane already have a couple of wins against that group and the schedule lightens up for the foreseeable future. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tulsa stood at 10-0 in conference play entering its game against SMU on February 7. From there, the competition will steadily improve, but it’s a testament to Haith and his group of experienced returnees that the revival in Tulsa appears well on its way. Fans should look forward to the possibility of adding another chapter to this old Cinderella story.

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