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January 9, 2013

Column: Aggression costs Tulane in C-USA opener

Ed Conroy often pleads with his team to be the aggressor.

Tulane's coach wants his offense to attack, take control and stay relentless on both sides of the ball. However, following his team's 66-57 defeat to UTEP in the Conference USA opener, he readily acknowledged there must also be restraint.

While Conroy was pleased with the passion his Green Wave (12-4, 0-1 Conference USA) played with, he lamented its patience, claiming often times Tulane tried to do too much and took ill-advised shots or unwise defensive gambles late in the shot clock.

It resulted in an array of reckless shots at the basket, converting just 33 percent from the field despite consistently reaching the paint. Meanwhile, UTEP's patient and efficient offensive approach worked for open looks late in the shot clock, and the Miners were converting as high as 57 percent from the field late in the second half.

"We just did not execute at the end of the (shot) clock at the defensive end," Conroy said. "We didn't protect the paint and we didn't protect each other the way we have all year. And we certainly didn't rebound the basketball the way we have all year."

The performance of forward Josh Davis exemplified the high intensity, low execution evening at Devlin Fieldhouse. Although Conference's USA's leader in scoring and rebounding was able to frequently dribble into the post via isolation moves, he rarely finished at the rim.

UTEP's defense squelched both Davis and an athletically renewed Kendall Timmons by collapsing onto the low block and contesting shots nearly every time Tulane dribbled near the basket. The pair combined to shoot just 6-for-22, totaling 17 points.

While Tulane drew plenty of contact and had close looks, it rarely ever kicked out to open shooters on the perimeter after the defense was drawn in.

"We didn't move the ball like I would like to by going inside-out and finding extra guys," Conroy said. "We forced a few shots around the basket. Then there were a few that we just should have made down there."

But unlike some other early-season Conference USA matchups of the past, it didn't appear Tulane was playing above its head or caught flat-footed by a more talented team. With rare exceptions, the Green Wave matched up well with UTEP (7-6, 1-0) and at times flexed greater speed and strength than its opponent.

There just wasn't enough execution of simple things. Too many missed four-foot shots and whiffed defensive switches off of screens.

These are all correctable.

In that, there's a silver lining.

Yes, Tulane was too aggressive and it resulted in some self-inflicted damage. Yet it's still far more desirable than a team without the ability to find a clean look against an above-average opponent, which is where the program was when Conroy inherited it from Dave Dickerson.

As leading scorer Ricky Tarrant (18 points) said, Tulane failed to perform in the areas it excelled in all season - finishing at the rim, making free throws, rebounding and squeezing opponents with tight half-court defense.

"It kind of shocked me tonight," Tarrant said. "All of the things we didn't do tonight, it's stuff we usually do."

Whether it was due to injuries or just a talent deficiency, this same UTEP program ran the Green Wave off the court in a similar situation two years ago. It wasn't the case on Wednesday.

It's a glimmer of hope guard Ben Cherry took note of, voicing his disbelief as Tulane tries to recover from consecutive last place C-USA finishes and move forward to its next conference game on Saturday at SMU.

"Everyone knows how frustrating it's been the past two years in conference," Cherry said. "We definitely didn't want to start like this, but it just shows if you don't come out ready to play, especially on the defensive end where they come into your house and feel comfortable, you're not going to win.

"Still, I think it shows how much better of a team we are, because we played so poorly on defense and gave up so many layups and dunks, but we were down just five with 1:15 left. We just have to put our heads to the grindstone and get ready to play."

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