Nov. 12, 2009

 

By Anthony Oliva III
NCAA.com

Overshadowed by Memphis' deep NCAA Tournament runs, gaudy winning streaks and NBA lottery picks sits another Conference USA team that quietly has won 70 games the past three seasons, including 25 in each of the last two.

That's the way things have gone for Tulsa lately - excellence in near silence. But this year, with Tulsa returning almost all of its key contributors, and Memphis perceived to take a hit with the loss of four key starters and its figurehead coach, the 2009-10 season could be the perfect storm for the Golden Hurricane

Tulsa is believed by many to be the favorite to win the C-USA this year, something Memphis has done handily the last four years, winning 61 consecutive conference games and taking all four C-USA Tournaments. During that stretch, only one other C-USA team, UAB in 2005-06, made the NCAA Tournament - something Tulsa has it sights set firmly on this season.

The Golden Hurricane return five of their top six scorers and have two seniors on the preseason all-conference team, in center Jerome Jordan, the C-USA Preseason Player of the Year, and guard Ben Uzoh. Throw in the fact that the C-USA Tournament will be played in Tulsa this year - as opposed to Memphis the last two seasons - and you can tell why expectations are high.

"I don't know if we have gotten any more [hype] than what we deserve or don't deserve," Tulsa Head Coach Doug Wojcik said. "I think we're on the radar which I think we do deserve. The expectations are the way the program has been built and to some degree it comes with the territory."

When you look at years past, it's hard to understand how Tulsa hasn't received this level of recognition. In conference play last year, the Golden Hurricane went 12-4. Three of those games were lost by a combined four points, including a one-point heartbreaker to Memphis when Antonio Anderson, now graduated, scored at the buzzer for the Tigers.

"It's hard to be perfect," Wojcik said.

The only other loss came at the hands of - you guessed it - Memphis. Tulsa, and the rest of the C-USA for that matter, hopes that this year will be a different scenario.  

"I think every team in the league is pumped up for Memphis," said Uzoh, who with the rest of this senior class has yet to beat Memphis. "They haven't been beaten. They set the bar of where everyone else wants to get. It's definitely a game that you look forward to."

Tulsa has added motivation - as if it needed any more - when it faces Memphis, since it lost to the Tigers in the last two C-USA Tournament finals. In retrospect, the Golden Hurricane needed to win those games, which were played in Memphis, to make the NCAA Tournament. This year's conference tournament is being played in Tulsa and the Golden Hurricane are aiming for a different result if they can make it that far.

"Hopefully we'll get a few more fans this year," Jordan joked.

The losses in the C-USA finals kept the Golden Hurricane from an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. It got them a bid to the CBI Tournament in 2007-08, which they won, and a bid to the NIT last year. But improving and finally reaching the NCAA tournament this year would be what coach Wojcik called the "natural progression of the program."

If there was ever a year for Tulsa to make the leap, it's this year. Everything appears to be falling into place and the team knows that.

"This year the newcomers and returning guys all came in with a different mindset that this year we're really going to try to do something special," Jordan said. "It has really paid off. We're moving in the right directions right now."

Still, Memphis looms over C-USA like the 7-foot Jordan does over opponents. And, if Tulsa expects to dethrone Memphis, Jordan is going to be a vital asset. Jordan averaged 13.8 points and 8.6 rebounds last year. He was first in the conference in blocked shots and shooting percentage, and second in the league in rebounding.

"He's been working hard he's been getting better each and every year," Uzoh said. "It's been like day and night with him. He's just becoming a student of the game. He's picking things up quick. His IQ is really, really strong and he encourages everyone and makes everyone better."

Jordan mentioned that he is working on a more well-rounded offensive game. He is trying to extend his range and improve his moves when facing the basket. He wants to do this to avoid constant double teams in the post. But, if he does get double teamed, he does have another weapon on the wing and that's Uzoh.

For his career, Uzoh has averaged 13.2 points and over five rebounds a game. He was selected to the C-USA second team last year, but his greatest contributions may come as the floor general.

"He's developed so much since he got here his freshman this year just in terms of his leadership skills," Jordan said of Uzoh. "He's always been able to score and do all the little things for us to help us win games, but he's really turned into a point guard for us. He's vocal on the court and he helps all the players around him get better."

Tulsa also returns senior guard Justin Hurtt who averaged 9.6 points a game and shot 39 percent from 3-point range last year. Throw in senior Bishop Wheatley, junior Glenn Andrews and sophomore Steven Idlet and Tulsa has an experienced nucleus to go along with freshman guard Donte Medder and guard-forward Bryson Pope. Wojcik says both freshmen should make an "immediate impact."

And as things fall into place more and more, those goals of winning the C-USA and making the NCAA tournament seem to be in reach. As a result, Tulsa's getting noticed.

"None of us have been there yet so we don't deserve anything more than we've gotten, but there is a better awareness of us than there has been in the past," Wojcik said. "But just like any conference, unfortunately in today's world, that's non BCS, we need to look at ourselves and see if we're getting a second team in the tournament."

If everything goes the Golden Hurricanes' way this year, they won't have to worry about being the second team - and they'll have stepped way, way out of the shadows.