With three recruits having already made their verbal pledges, Tulsa head coach Frank Haith and his staff are off to a solid start when it comes to accounting for some key departures in 2016. Wednesday the Golden Hurricane landed their fourth commitment in the Class of 2016, as 6-foot-9 power forward Martins Igbanu announced that he’ll be joining the American Athletic Conference program.
Igbanu attends Covenant Christian Ministries Academy in Georgia, and he played his grassroots basketball for the Southern Stampede program. In Nike EYBL play this spring Igbanu averaged 10.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest, shooting nearly 59 percent from the field.
Igbanu joins guards Lawson Korita, Corey Henderson and Jabar Ray in Tulsa’s 2016 recruiting class to date, with Henderson and Ray being junior college products.
While Tulsa’s biggest losses after the 2015-16 season from a production standpoint will come on the perimeter (James Woodard, Shaquille Harrison and Rashad Ray), they also have some front court departures to account for. Rashad Smith, who was third on the team in scoring as a junior, will also be a senior this upcoming season and the same can be said for fellow front court contributors D’Andre Wright and Brandon Swannegan.
Adding Igbanu will help Tulsa as they look to account for those eventual losses. Of the front court players on the roster with eligibility remaining beyond 2015-16 current junior T.K. Edogi was the most productive last season (1.4 ppg), with Pat Birt joining the team this season and Rutgers transfer Junior Etou becoming eligible after he sits out the upcoming season.
Tulsa gets 2016 commitment from former Wichita State guard
Corey Henderson Jr. didn’t find the right fit the first time around in the recruiting process, as the sophomore opted to leave Wichita State this spring after spending his freshman season there. Now at Blinn College for a season, the 6-foot-2 native of Dallas opted to commit to Tulsa on Saturday, a source confirmed with NBCSports.com. He’ll join the program for the 2016-17 season and have two seasons of eligibility remaining.
During his freshman season with the Shockers, Henderson averaged 6.8 minutes per game and scored 1.9 points per contest. He fell out of the rotation late in the season and Henderson didn’t play in the final two regular season games for Wichita State.
A noted shooter out of high school, Henderson struggled to find his shot last season, hitting 29 percent of his shots from the field and 31 percent of his 3-point attempts.
With four of their front court players due to be seniors next season, Tulsa is in need of some additional depth in that area. Saturday afternoon head coach Frank Haith picked up a front court commitment in Junior Etou, who will transfer to the American Athletic Conference program after playing two years at Rutgers.
Etou will have to sit out next season per NCAA transfer rules, but given Tulsa’s options that isn’t an issue. Following that he’ll have two seasons of eligibility remaining, and he’ll slide into a front court rotation that loses Rashad Smith, Marquel Curtis, Brandon Swannegan and D’Andre Wright at the end of the 2015-16 season.
The 6-foot-7 Etou started all 31 games in which he played last season, averaging 7.4 points and 6.6 rebounds in 29.6 minutes of action per game. In two seasons at Rutgers Etou, who finished up his prep career at Bishop O’Connell in Virginia, averaged 6.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
In addition to Etou the Golden Hurricane, who won 23 games a season ago, add junior college wing Pat Birt and freshman guard Sterling Taplin next season. Tulsa will have an experienced group that will be led by rising senior guards James Woodard and Shaquille Harrison, and that experience should help Etou during his year in residency as he prepares to be a factor in 2016-17.
Sister’s illness makes for a bittersweet homecoming for Tulsa head coach Frank Haith
Saturday was supposed to be a celebration for Tulsa head coach Frank Haith and his family.
Born in Queens, Haith moved to North Carolina when he was five. That’s where he says he’s from, where he calls home and where most of his family still resides. On Saturday, he’ll bring his Golden Hurricane team — one of the hottest and most surprising teams in the country, but I’ll get to that in a minute — on a trip to East Carolina for an American road game.
That’s the game those friends and family members — he is one of 11 siblings — from Burlington are going to make the two-and-a-half hour trip to Greenville to see him try and coach his boys to 7-0 in the league, their first in the American. The traveling party will not be intact, however, as Haith’s sister, Laura, is still in the hospital after suffering a brain aneurysm six weeks ago.
“She’s still in the ICU,” he said. “She’s still not awake.”
Laura suffered the aneurysm back in early December, and Frank flew home to be with his family after Tulsa’s win over Arkansas-Little Rock on Dec. 7th. He flew back to Tulsa for their Dec. 10th game against Southeastern Oklahoma State, a Division II school, having missed two days’ worth of practice. He got back into town just a couple of hours before tip-off, and the result was one of the most embarrassing of his professional career.
The Golden Hurricane lost to Southeastern, setting off a flurry of the typical, played-out Frank-Haith-Can’t-Coach jokes from spiteful Missouri and Miami fans as well as your standard-issue snark from those that write about the sport.
His sister, who has two sons of her own, was in a coma and the team he left an SEC program to coach — the one that returned quite a bit of talent from a team that made last year’s NCAA tournament — was sitting at 5-4 with losses to crosstown rivals Oral Roberts and a Division II school.
“It was tough,” Haith said.
Three days later, Tulsa would get smacked around by Oklahoma.
Regardless of how much talent there is on a basketball team, when a new coach is taking over a program, there is always going to be a period of transition. The new coaching staff needs to learn their players. What are their strengths and weaknesses, both individually and from a roster standpoint? Who needs to be pushed and who shuts down if they get yelled at? Who can take on a leadership role? Who picks up offense quickly and who doesn’t understand defensive positioning?
The same goes for the players. They’re not only learning a new system, new plays and new defenses, they’re trying to figure out just what this coaching staff expects from each of them and what their role looks like moving forward.
And, quite often, this happens in a situation where the two sides have, at best, a limited relationship to begin with.
It’s not an easy thing to do, and for this Tulsa team, Haith says, the slow start to the season was all a part of their learning curve.
“Everything was new,” Haith said. “They played a different way last year. Did things different. Different terminology.”
“They used to be three-out, two-in, now we’re four-out, one-in,” he said of the system Tulsa ran under former coach Danny Manning, who is now at Wake Forest. “We’re spread pick-and-roll, they were high-low. We had to figure that all how to put Shaquille Harrison and Jordan Woodard in a position where they could be the most successful. You want to put those guys where they can be comfortable and productive.”
Simply put, the players and the coaches were still feeling each other out.
But that loss to Oklahoma, on December 13th, was the last loss that the Golden Hurricane suffered. They’ve now won eight straight games, six of which came in American play with three of those league wins coming on the road. That’s an impressive way to announce one’s self to a conference, and Haith gives the credit to the timing of the school’s winter break: right after the loss to Oklahoma.
Everyone in the program — from Haith to star guards Woodard and Harrison to the managers giving players water during timeouts — realized they had to do something to turn their season around. So they took the time where they didn’t have to worry themselves with classes or homework and, as Haith put it, “just got better.”
Practices were more focused, players were getting individual workouts in on their own, film sessions went longer. They got to know each other better just by being in such close quarters.
“That’s the good thing about us,” Haith said. “There was no panic. In anybody.”
“That’s where we were at. It’s not like we’re that team [that can win just by showing up]. I’ve gotta give them credit because we really grew a lot over that break.”
Tulsa still has a long way to go this season. They’ve beaten Memphis and UConn at home, but still have to make return trips as well as play SMU twice and host Cincinnati. They’re a half-game up on the Mustangs and two games up on both the Bearcats and the Huskies, but it’s probably still too early to call them favorites in the league; they’re about two-thirds of the way through the easy part of their conference schedule.
But if Haith has proven anything, it’s that he has a team that is going to contend for the American title this season, Southeastern Oklahoma State be damned.
Blowing out a program like Memphis in a primetime game on ESPN to move to 6-0 in one of the top seven leagues in a country has a way of making people forget about a random loss in the middle of the Fantasy Football playoffs.
So yes, professionally, Haith is in a good spot right now.
His sister, however, is not, at least not yet.
“We just don’t know what’s next right now,” Haith said. “We’re just taking it day-by-day.”
The family will try to rally as they can this weekend, to celebrate the success that Haith is having this season. It’s a welcome distraction, something to look forward to in order to keep your mind off of a family member that’s in a coma.
But it won’t be the same without Laura there.
“This East Carolina game is a tough one for me because this is the game that she was making plans to come to,” Haith said. “She’s the one that was on top of everything.
“It’s been tough. It’s been real tough. She’s got two boys and we’re taking care of them, but it’s been hard.”
In their inaugural season as a member of the American Athletic Conference, Tulsa entered with a new head coach in Frank Haith but a host of returnees from a team that won a share of the Conference USA regular season title and that league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament last season. The Golden Hurricane were picked to finish fifth in the American preseason poll, with reigning national champions UConn, SMU, Cincinnati and Memphis all expected to outperform them.
Tulsa led by as much as 28, thanks to their perimeter tandem of Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard and a philosophy of attacking the basket consistently. The Golden Hurricane didn’t shoot particularly well from three, making just two of their 12 attempts, but their work to get the ball inside off the dribble resulted in 34 free throw attempts (making 21) and 57.5% shooting inside of the arc.
Harrison tallied 18 points, ten rebounds and six assists, with Woodard (16 and five rebounds) and Rashad Smith (14 and seven rebounds) also reaching double figures and Rashad Ray adding nine points and three assists. But the biggest difference Wednesday night was the turnover department, something that’s been key for Tulsa throughout conference play.
While there was some carelessness on the part of Memphis, that doesn’t account for all 17 turnovers the Tigers committed. Tulsa’s ability to win the turnover battle has served them well in conference play, and they finished Wednesday’s game a plus-11 in that statistical category. In addition to their ability to win the turnover battle, Tulsa leads the American (conference games) in both adjusted defensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers) and field goal percentage defense, and they’re third in three-point percentage defense.
Against Memphis the Golden Hurricane showed both man and zone looks, which kept Memphis from establishing much in the way of continuity, and they were able to convert a decent percentage of those Tiger turnovers into points on the other end.
Figuring out the race in the American has been a bit difficult to do, thanks in large part to the performances of the teams expected to control the race prior to the start of the season. UConn already has two conference losses and faces the bigger concern of simply doing enough to return to the NCAA tournament, and the same can be said for 4-3 Memphis.
Cincinnati’s moving forward with Larry Davis on the sidelines as opposed to Mick Cronin, who’s out of that role for health reasons, and SMU has to deal with the loss of two pieces of their rotation (Justin Martin and Keith Frazier). Tulane’s off to a surprising 4-2 start, and after winning their first three league games Temple’s hit a rough patch with three consecutive defeats.
While those teams work through their respective issues, at the top of the standings sits a Tulsa squad that has bounced back from an ugly home loss to Southeast Oklahoma State followed by a beating at the hands of No. 19 Oklahoma. What seemed unfathomable in late December has become reality just under a month later. The Golden Hurricane are the best team in the American Athletic Conference.
Tulsa lands verbal commitment from South Plains College guard
Tulsa received its second verbal commitment in the Class of 2015 Saturday evening, as South Plains College guard Pat Birt made his pledge according to Eric Bossi of Rivals.com. Birt joins fellow guard Sterling Taplin as players who have committed to joining Frank Haith’s program next summer, but unlike Taplin (who’s a high school senior) the 6-foot-5 Birt has prior experience at the Division I level.
Birt began his college career at UIC, where he averaged 6.3 points and 1.7 rebounds per game in 29 appearances in 2013-14. Birt, who shot 41 percent from the field and just under 39 percent from beyond the arc, made 15 starts and was a Horizon League All-Freshman Team selection.
“Pat has improved tremendously during his first year of college basketball,” UIC head coach Howard Moore said of Birt in March. “He has a very high ceiling in this league and I am happy for him that he is getting well-deserved recognition.”
Of Birt’s eight double-digit scoring efforts last season five came against Horizon League competition, including a 16-point night in 20 minutes of action in a loss to Green Bay. He’ll join a perimeter rotation that currently doesn’t have a senior, with junior James Woodard leading the way for the Golden Hurricane in their first season as a member of the American Athletic Conference.