Every year, there’s at least one team that runs up a good record, either in non-conference or a conference, that becomes the subject of much speculation with regards to getting an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Tulsa was just such a team last season, winning their first ten games in American Athletic Conference play en route to a 14-4 mark. The Golden Hurricane ultimately fell short and settled for a bid in the NIT.
Can they avoid that fate this season? There’s reason to believe they can, and they’ve already done something to help their cause there.
Merely on account of returning personnel, the Golden Hurricane should be seen as a contender in The American this season. Frank Haith will have a veteran team with nine seniors and four juniors (though one junior, Rutgers transfer Junior Etou, will sit out and have two years starting next season). All five starters are back, and they return their top eight scorers and rebounders. In other words, this team will have experience and continuity going for it.
The biggest problem Tulsa had with the committee last season, however, was who they beat. The Golden Hurricane went 0-4 against teams in the RPI top 25 and just 2-6 against the top 50. They whiffed on their best chances in non-conference play with double-digit losses against Oklahoma State, Wichita State and Oklahoma, especially since they had ground to make up from losses at Oral Roberts and against Southeastern Oklahoma. Their best non-conference win away from home was probably their win over Auburn in Las Vegas.
It didn’t help that The American had a bad run through non-conference play, as teams struggled to pick up quality wins to raise the conference’s standing. That meant less opportunities for quality wins in conference play, and along with the Golden Hurricane’s lack of quality wins reduced their margin for error. To that end, SMU was the only top 25 team in the conference, and they lost both games to the Mustangs, while also losing twice to Connecticut (they beat the Huskies at home) and losing their only meeting against Cincinnati. Five teams in the conference ended the season with RPIs south of 200, and all had very low non-conference strength of schedule numbers.
Tulsa didn’t finish well, either, going 6-4 in their last ten games. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee doesn’t use the last ten games as a formal criteria when evaluating teams, but that’s worth noting because it tells you the Golden Hurricane were in a better position for a bid at one point. A better finish might have included a win over SMU or Cincinnati late, or perhaps one over UConn to reach the conference championship game, and that would have meant a better resume.
While the players should be a year older and a year better this time around, they will get tested more as well. The Golden Hurricane had a non-conference strength of schedule well into the three digits last season, so that meant they needed the big games more than they might otherwise have. This year, that should be less of a problem. They host Wichita State once again, play at Oklahoma State, take on surging Oregon State in Portland, and are in the Paradise Jam. The number of big games is about the same as last year, but the other opponents are, for the most part, better.
After last season, you can figure Tulsa will be very motivated to avoid the same fate a second time. They will want to win a big game or two. They will want to be in the NCAA Tournament. For that matter, they will want to get to the point where they aren’t even on the bubble, sweating it out on Selection Sunday.
In 2015-16, Tulsa could once again run up a nice conference record. They certainly have the personnel to do it. This time, though, they will also have more opportunities for quality wins that they will need for an NCAA Tournament bid. The next thing to do will be to break through and win a few of the games, something you expect a more mature team to do. If they do that, there’s every reason to think they should once again contend in The American as well. And Selection Sunday could be a little bit easier for them this time.