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October 30, 2013
Simply by avoiding the rash of injuries that struck an already thin and inexperienced squad a year ago, the University of Tulsa basketball team should be appreciably better.
The physical maturation and skills improvement of what could potentially be one of the great classes in school history -- James Woodard, D'Andre Wright, Shaquille Harrison, Rashad Ray and Brandon Swannegan -- lifts the ceiling.
Factor in the return of Rashad Smith, the leading scorer through four games a year ago, a senior leader in guard Tim Peete, as well as the additions of junior college transfers Marquel Curtis and Lew Evans, who are both expected to contribute immediately, and there is cause for legitimate hope that Tulsa could be on the verge of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
Now, whether Tulsa goes legitimately ten deep, including senior Pat Swilling Jr., or whether any of this year's true freshmen will be ready for immediate contributions, is where the questions start to pile up.
One promising freshman who is a potential redshirt is Riley Kemmer, a 6-foot-7 forward from Wichita, who has a hip injury. That still leaves 6-foot-5 guard Stevie Repichowski from Lansing, Mich., 6-foot-8 TK Edogi of Surprise, Ariz., and 6-foot-11 Emmanuel Ezechinonso of Lagos, Nigeria.
At TU Media Day last week, head coach Danny Manning made it clear that this year's freshman class is not as advanced as the bunch that carried Tulsa to a 17-16 overall record and an 8-8 finish in Conference USA a year ago. The good news, they don't have to be. There are actually experienced and talented players in front of them, giving them time to develop.
No doubt, however, that Tulsa could benefit from some added inside depth, even if it's just rebounding, shot blocking and defense. To that end, the athletic Edogi has raised some eyebrows in camp and may be the most ready to contribute. Ezechinonso is imposing, but extremely raw. Repichowski will be looking for minutes in a fairly crowded rotation of wing players.
Among the returnees, Manning will be looking for the big strides often made between the freshman and sophomore years, even from those who were thrust into fulltime hazard duty a year ago. Ray has added 30 pounds to his lightning quick frame. Wright and Swannegan are noticeably stronger and quicker. Yet Tulsa fans may be most impressed by the improvement of point guard Harrison.
A fearless penetrator a year ago, Harrison's game was limited by an outside shot that was frankly welcomed by opponents. Manning said Harrison has worked hard to erase that deficiency and has shot the ball extremely well all summer and into fall camp.
"Shaq was one of the rocks on our team," Manning said. "He was very underappreciated in a lot of people's eyes. He started every game and set the tone for us defensively.
"Shaq is a freakish type athlete. The way he moves, the ground that he covers, the explosion that he has. He's just super athletic. He reminds me of Russell Westbrook. He gets his hands on balls and creates deflections."
Improved offense from Harrison and Ray, plus the return of Smith and the addition of Curtis, may combine to serve as a springboard to even more success for James Woodard, who led the team with a 12.0 average despite facing defenses designed to stop him after his torrid start.
Also intriguing will be how Smith and Wright work together and attack both on the high and low posts. Wright showed his potential in a 25-point explosion at UTEP. On the other hand, he spent much of the season injured and inconsistent. Developing a consistent low-post scoring option will make the Hurricane offense much more versatile.
Manning is promising that increased depth means a faster tempo and the enthusiasm of the players and impatience to be turned loose in games was readily apparent.
"We can't wait (for the first game, a Nov. 10 home encounter with Oral Roberts)," Ray said. "Everyone is excited. Our goal this year is making the NCAA Tournament and winning Conference USA."
With all the newcomers to C-USA, the schedule will be odd. The only team Tulsa plays twice is North Texas. Otherwise, Tulsa plays each C-USA team once prior to the league tournament March 11-15 in El Paso.
In addition to opening with crosstown rival ORU, schedule highlights include four games against former Missouri Valley foes including Missouri State (Nov. 16), home versus Final Four participant Wichita State (Nov. 20), at Creighton (Nov. 23) and Indiana State (Nov. 27 in Alaska).
Tulsa also has significant non-conference road games at Oklahoma, TCU and Maryland.
It should be an interesting journey to watch, regardless of where it ends.
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