Aron Minkoff (@AronMinkoff)
Facing a change in competition, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and their first-year head coach, Frank Haith, amassed an impressive 14-4 record in the American Athletic Conference, good enough for a second place finish in the conference.
It would not be enough though, as the team was denied a bid to the NCAA Tournament, just a year after winning the Conference USA and earning the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2003. They instead settled for a second seed in the NIT, where they would lose to Murray State in the second round, putting that much more pressure on the team to take care of business this season.
This year’s Tulsa team is as experienced as they come, boasting a senior class of nine, seven of whom played meaningful minutes and were the top seven in just about every statistical category for the Golden Hurricane last season.
“They are a group of guys that have created a bond with each other. They are a group that has been a part of winning,” Haith said.
Tulsa’s starting backcourt, the leaders of the senior class, is as daunting as they come, featuring James Woodard who boasted a 14.5 ppg and 4.9 rpg line last season. Point guard Shaquille Harrison will join Woodard for the Golden Hurricane, he he averaged 13.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 3.7 apg.
Tulsa’s front court is equally loaded, led by Rashad Smith, D’Andre Wright and Brandon Swannegan. Smith led the group with 8.4 ppg and 6.0 rpg last season with Wright recording 7.0 ppg and 4.4 rpg and Swannegan coming off of the bench to add 3.8 ppg and 4.0 rpg.
The final two seniors in the experience puzzle that is the Tulsa lineup are guards Rashad Ray and Marquel Curtis who chimed in 7.5 and 7.3 ppg respectively.
“I think we can be very special this season,” Woodard said. “I feel like everybody has bought into Coach Haith’s system, everyone is focused. This is the last go-around for us, and we are not taking any days off, we are just going towards our goal of making it back to the tournament.”
Luckily for Haith, nobody from last year’s team graduated, and with the exception of two rarely-used players transferring out of the program, the entire core is back and the vast majority are those who want to end their careers on top.
“I think our league was young and I don’t think that we quite got the respect,” Haith said. “This year it’s older, hopefully our league will get the kind-of respect where I think there are five teams that can make the NCAA Tournament...It is what it is, I hope that our guys learned from that and we will have to make sure we have opportunities early on to take care of business.”
This is a Golden Hurricane team that didn’t lose a single game in January, winning 12 consecutive games, a streak that spanned from mid-December to early February before finishing out the regular season 4-4.
What really hurt Tulsa last season was their struggles out of the gate, only going 7-5 during their non-conference schedule. This stretch included losses to nationally ranked teams such as Wichita State (number nine) and Oklahoma (number 16), but losses to Oklahoma State, Oral Roberts and especially to Southeastern Oklahoma State, a Division II team really hurt the team.
“We struggled early on, with me, a new coach coming in a new system,” Haith said. “I think that affected us early on and affected us getting to the tournament, but I think winning 12 in a row, going 14-4 in this conference, I thought was something this committee would look at a little closer with how we finished.”
With no key players departing the program, Haith added two key pieces that figure to play their way right into the Golden Hurricane rotation in JUCO transfer Patrick Birt and freshman Sterling Taplin, both of whom are guards on what is a very guard-laden roster.
Things are shaping up nicely for coach Haith in his second year on the job, the AAC seems poised to send quite a few teams to the tournament in what could be a banner year for the third-year conference. Last year’s AAC representatives in the tournament SMU and Cincinnati look poised to make a return as well as UConn and Temple seem to be on the cusp of tournament bids as well.
For Haith, he guided his last two teams, Missouri and Miami to four tournament bids racking up a 1-4 record in those appearances. His lone win came in Miami’s only tournament appearance in his seven years with the program.
“We play in a great conference, all of the teams are pretty good,” Woodard said. “It’s going to be a dog fight, we have some pretty good teams, we had two teams go to the NCAA tournament, it’s a pretty tough conference so we are just very excited to compete in it.”