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.
But through six games Tulsa sits alone atop the conference standings with a 6-0 record, and Wednesday night they won their eighth straight by pummeling Memphis by the somewhat deceptive final score of 73-55.
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.