Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tulsa

1) Tulsa is a big man away from being an NCAA Tournament team

Tulsa has the guards to play with anyone. The problem is upfront, where they only have two big men - Brandon Swannegan, a 6'9 210 shot-blocker, and D'Andre Wright, a 6'9 245 warm body. They hardly ever play them together, which means Tulsa is giving up size against just about every team they face. SMU killed them on the offensive boards on Wednesday (19 to 8) and made hay all night by playing inside-out, collapsing the defense and kicking the ball out for open 3's. Tulsa was able to pull off the upset because they forced 14 turnovers and won the fast break battle 10-0, but the lack of size has killed them all season and it's the Achilles heel that's probably going to keep them out of the Tournament.

Once you get outside the Power 5 conferences, what really separates programs is the amount of skilled and athletic size they have on their roster. Most mid-level programs either have the choice of playing stiffs with size or undersized guys with game - there just isn't enough skilled size to go around. Tulsa makes the best of it by playing a 3 at the 4 (6'7 205 senior wing Rashad Smith) and spreading out the other team and even going to five-out sets with Smith at the 5 at times, but those Golden State Warriors tactics really only work when you have guards who can defend big men. And there aren't many 6'7+ guys with the size, physicality and athleticism to do that floating around outside the Power 5.

Because they are so undersized, Tulsa can't A) match up with bigger teams and B) can't blow smaller teams off the floor. So while they have the talent to beat good teams like SMU, they also keep lesser teams like Oral Roberts (who beat them in non-conference) in the game because they don't have the talent at the frontcourt positions which would separate them from the great unwashed masses of the sport. They should be able to give teams like UConn, Cincy and Temple a run in the AAC Tourney, but it's hard to see them beating all of them to get the automatic bid and they will probably end up in the NIT, where they could go pretty far as long as they avoid a team with a big frontline.

2) Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard are two halves of a great NBA prospect

Tulsa has one of the best back-courts in the country in Harrison and Woodard, two seniors who have spent most of the last four seasons starting together. They are a less high profile version of OU's prolific senior backcourt of Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins. Coincidentally enough, James Woodard is the older brother of Jordan Woodard, the third banana in OU's backcourt. At 6'4 190 (Harrison) and 6'3 190 (Woodard) they are big, physical and athletic and they would give just about any team in the country trouble on the perimeter. There's a lot to like about their games, but they each have one glaring flaw that's going to prevent them from playing at the next level, at least at this point in their careers. While they might be able to grind it out in the D-League for a few years and fight their way into a roster spot, the odds are definitely against them, especially coming from a lower profile school.

Harrison - 15.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists on 2.0 turnovers, 2.0 steals on 47/21/64 shooting
Woodard - 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists on 1.8 turnovers, 1.2 steals on 53/38/77 shooting

Harrison is a big PG with exceptional athleticism and great body control who can get to the rim pretty easily, but he can't shoot 3's to save his life. Woodard is a well-rounded scorer who can shoot from distance and attack off the dribble, but he's a score-first guard who doesn't look to distribute the ball much. You can count the number of guards who can't shoot 3's in the NBA on one hand and they are all transcendent passers who struggle to make a positive impact on a good team while guards who are Woodard's size at the next level and aren't pure PG's tend to be transcendent scorers who can take over games against the best players in the world. It's no knock on either to say they aren't transcendent at any one thing. If Harrison had Woodard's shot, he'd be a first rounder and it would be the same if Woodard had Harrison's floor game.

As is, they complement each other really well at the NCAA level and make up for each other's weaknesses. The holes in their games mean they are exactly the type of players who can slip through the cracks and wind up at a mid-level program like Tulsa, where they have been lucky enough to be part of a duo that's better than the sum of its parts. It was just a fantastic job of scouting and recruiting by Danny Manning's staff at Tulsa and that backcourt has given Frank Haith a huge leg up in his first two seasons on the job.



3) Tulsa is too experienced for its own good

There are nine players in the Tulsa rotation. Seven of them are seniors, one is a junior and one is a freshman. What that means is that Haith has only two guys whom he has recruited who are getting any playing time - he has spent the last two seasons eating off the seed corn that Manning had sown into the program before departing for Wake Forest. Of the 200 total minutes they played against SMU, 160 of them came to players who won't be with the program next season and of the fifteen players on their roster, there are only two underclassmen. It's a grossly irresponsible way to manage a program and it's almost certainly going to come back to bite Haith in the coming seasons.


On one hand, you can understand him not wanting to run off any players and honoring everyone's scholarships, especially considering in what great shape the program was in when he took over. On the other, a college coach always has to have one eye on the future when he's building his roster and Haith has backed himself into a pretty deep corner once he loses all of Manning's players.

4) Is Haith up to his old tricks?

If you've followed Haith's coaching career over the last few seasons, this is all going to sound very familiar. After seven middling seasons at Miami (FL), Haith took over for Mike Anderson at Missouri in 2011. Anderson had built up Missouri before returning to his old stomping grounds at Arkansas, leaving behind a ready made roster with several NBA prospects that would put the coach who took over for him in a perfect situation to hit the ground running.

In Haith's first season at Columbia, Missouri went 30-5 and was a Top 5 team for most of the season before getting knocked out in a 15-2 upset in the first round. That was the high point of his tenure there - they got steadily worse every season as the recruiting fell off and Haith eventually decamped for Tulsa, a fairly stunning decision since coaches never leave the SEC to go to a conference like the AAC. It felt like a guy getting out one step ahead of the pitchforks and that was confirmed when the NCAA came down on Missouri for various improprieties during Haith's tenure. Considering that he left Miami under a similar cloud because of NCAA violations, the entire sequence of events hasn't exactly done wonders for Haith's reputation.

Here's what should really concern Tulsa fans. Check out his win-loss records over the last five seasons:

2012 - Missouri - 30-5
2013 - Missouri - 23-11
2014 - Missouri - 23-12
2015 - Tulsa - 23-11
2016 - Tulsa - 15-8

In the three years before Haith took over at Mizzou, they were 31-7, 23-11 and 23-11. In the two years after he left, they are 9-23 and 8-15. He's a coach who was given the keys to a program that was running at a high level, kept things going while the old regime's players were still there before promptly running it into the ground and leaving the scene of the crime while the car was still smoldering. Long story short, Haith's trajectory at Tulsa is not looking good.

5) Haith's next recruiting class will make or break his tenure

With only one starter (junior Pat Birt) and one other rotation player (freshman Sterling Taplin) coming back, Tulsa is basically starting from ground zero next season, which means this next recruiting class will have to be the foundation for the program that Haith is trying to build. The good news is that he at least bothered to bring in enough players to fill out a roster. They are bringing in six guys, two of whom are JUCO's who should be able to play right away, and two of whom are three-star recruits, who should have plenty of chances to gain experience over the next few seasons. The biggest concern is that Haith has left himself with almost no margin for error. If any of those guys flame out, there just isn't a lot of depth in the program to make up for it.

The other issue is that the American isn't a conference where you want to be undergoing a wholesale rebuilding job. This isn't the C-USA or the WAC, their last two conferences where Tulsa had more resources than most of their competitors. The AAC has got big-budget programs with a ton of tradition in primo recruiting areas like UConn, Cincinnati and Memphis and they've got extremely accomplished coaches like Larry Brown at SMU, Fran Dunphy at Temple and Kelvin Sampson at UH. There are a lot of good programs and almost everyone has a roster full of high-caliber athletes. The level of play in this conference is pretty high and it's not going to be easy for Haith to keep the program above water.

To return to an earlier metaphor, you have to rotate your fields and plant crops every season to make sure you always have a harvest to bring to the market and Haith spent two years basically doing nothing to maintain the program's forward momentum.

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