C-USA Preview: With good health, Tulane could jump from last place to relevance

Over dinner on the peanut shell-strewn balcony of an uptown New Orleans bar, Ed Conroy listened to a sales pitch he fully expected to turn down.

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From 2006 to 2010, Conroy had transformed the Citadel from a seven-win laughingstock into a winning program, a feat thought to be nearly impossible before he achieved it. Then in spring 2010, Tulane president Scott Cowen and athletic director Rick Dickson tried to persuade him to leave the waterfront house he loved, the school he once played for and the players he'd recruited to tackle a rebuilding project as daunting as the one he'd just completed.

"We were winning more games than the Citadel had ever won, I had a fantastic group of guys and it was my alma mater, a place I really cared about," Conroy said. "Myself and my staff, we weren't looking. But when I came down here and spoke to President Cowen and Rick Dickson about where they thought Tulane could go, I just thought it could be a really neat challenge."

What sold Conroy on leaving the Citadel for Tulane was the opportunity to vie for conference titles in a stronger league and the resources Tulane was willing to spend to make it feasible.

Unlike the Big South, where the conference champion typically became first-round NCAA tournament fodder for an elite program, winning in Conference USA meant national relevance. Furthermore, Cowen and Dickson promised the university had sufficiently recovered from Hurricane Katrina to invest in basketball by beginning construction on a new practice facility, renovating its aging arena and increasing its budget for everything from scheduling to academic support.

Two and a half years after Conroy's surprise move to Tulane, he's beginning to make it look like a wise decision. With Conference USA freshman of the year Ricky Tarrant back for his sophomore season, double-double threat Josh Davis anchoring the frontcourt and 7-footer Tomas Bruha and high-scoring Kendall Timmons back from injury, the Green Wave suddenly appear to have the ingredients necessary for a leap to the upper half of the league standings.

"We're getting better," Conroy said. "When we arrived, we had a kid playing center for us who was about 6-6 1/2. Now, it's totally different from a size standpoint, a depth standpoint, a talent standpoint. In that aspect, it was a total rebuild. Every aspect of it."

It shouldn't be a surprise Conroy would make strides at Tulane because rebuilding wayward programs has been his specialty. He began his head coaching career at Division II Sir Francis Marion, which won three games the year before he arrived, and later led the Citadel to a rare 20-win season even though the program had lost 20 or more five of the previous six years.

Conroy's penchant for taking the road less traveled began in high school when he accepted an invitation to play basketball at the Citadel against the advice of much of his family.

At the time, Conroy's first cousin, Pat Conroy, was barred from the Citadel campus for writing a book entitled "My Losing Season" that detailed his traumatic senior year as point guard for the Bulldogs. Citadel coach Les Robinson needed special permission from his administration just to recruit a member of Pat Conroy's family, yet once he got it, he was able to quickly form a strong bond with Ed.

"I really wasn't that fired up about going south and going to a military school and my cousin wasn't exactly popular there at the time, but coach Les Robinson and his staff, I grew to really like them," Ed Conroy said. "Once I met the people there and furthered my relationship with them, I was hooked. I remember getting on a plane going back thinking that's where I'm going to go and I'm not going to let anybody talk me out of it."

The foundation for Conroy's coaching philosophy began to take shape during his playing days at the Citadel.

He learned to be organized, disciplined and detail-oriented. He learned the importance of surrounding himself with quality people. And he learned that hard work a day at a time would eventually build up into something big.

Those lessons are the ones he tries to remember even though his first two years at Tulane have included more valleys than peaks.

In Conroy's first season as coach of Tulane, the Green Wave won 10 of 13 non-league games against a weak schedule and started 2-0 in Conference USA before losing all but one game the rest of the way. A more talented Tulane team started last season 12-2 including an upset of Georgia Tech, but the Green Wave again faded in league play, this time done in by injuries to Timmons and Bruha that left them undermanned and overmatched.

The return of the 6-foot-5 Timmons from a torn Achilles tendon gives Conroy another proven perimeter scorer to pair with emerging star Tarrant and long-range shooter Jordan Callahan. And if Bruha has fully recovered from his recurring knee issues, he can help Josh Davis defend the paint and control the backboards.

That nucleus combined with a promising incoming class gives Tulane enough talent to challenge for an upper-division Conference USA finish. The challenge for that group now is that it must learn how to win.

"I think we've been competitive all along, but there's another level where you're winning some of the close games and you're relevant," Conroy said. "Hopefully now we can start to finish off some games and start to take the next step."

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