Sophomores ready to make impact at Tulane

Advocate staff photo by DERICK HINGLE -- Tulane coach Ed Conroy looks on during a game against Bethune-Cookman last season.
Advocate staff photo by DERICK HINGLE -- Tulane coach Ed Conroy looks on during a game against Bethune-Cookman last season.

Kajon Mack and Louis Dabney may only be sophomores, but to this year’s Tulane basketball team, the year of experience earns them an automatic leadership distinction.

After losing six players to transfer and two to graduation in the offseason, the Green Wave opened preseason practice two weeks ago with eight true freshmen to replace them. So, in the place of five of its top six scorers — including an All-Conference USA first- and second-team selection — Tulane will turn to its handful of veterans.

While seniors Tomas Bruha and Kevin Thomas have been around the program, they’ve rarely contributed for prolonged stretches. That leaves juniors Tre Drye, a former Glen Oaks standout, and Jay Hook, along with Mack and Dabney, as the foundation of experienced players for Tulane entering the 2013-14 season, which debuts in an exhibition game Nov. 3 against against Loyola at Devlin Fieldhouse on.

“It’s been pretty crazy to think about how different it looks at practice from last year,” Dabney said. “Last year, we kind of had a chance to mess up, but now with all of these freshman, I have to be on point every practice and be ready to go hard so I can show them how we do things here. It’s natural in some ways but at the same time it’s a bit different.”

He highlighted the play of freshmen guards Cole Currie, Jonathan Stark and Cameron Reynolds, along with forward Payton Henson in the early weeks of practice. Mack said he was “shocked” by how well Currie, Stark and Reynolds have performed so far.

Tulane coach Ed Conroy said while he’s getting a feel for where the newcomers can fit in various personnel groups, he is relying on younger players to carry a large portion of the leadership load that typically falls on upperclassmen.

But it’s not as if Dabney or Mack were top options for the Green Wave last year.

Dabney filled in as a defensively-focused rotational player, averaging just 2.2 points in 6.5 minutes per game while recovering from a lingering knee injury suffered in high school. Meanwhile, after being largely overlooked early in the year, Mack emerged as an complement to Tulane’s small lineup against Conference USA foes but started just seven games, playing 11.5 minutes and scoring 3.6 points in league games.

So neither has been the focal point of a college defense or relied upon to break scoring droughts in the past, two penchants of premier players. Still, Conroy likes what he’s seen thus far and said the recent stretch of preseason practices are the most intense and productive since he came to Tulane four years ago.

“Those guys have taken on the challenge that they know is coming to them,” Conroy said. “Kajon is working through an ankle injury, but I think it’s made him work more on his skill rather than rely on his athleticism. And Lou is the player right now that we thought he would be, before he even had the knee injury. He’s done a great job, and he’s finally healthy.”

Conroy’s excitement extends beyond the court as well. With eight new players in the locker room, Mack and Dabney have taken on a mentoring role, relaying advice to freshmen not only focused on filling the right defensive gaps and offensive rotations, but also about the rigors of school and general campus life.

“Some of these guys didn’t know how to get anywhere,” Mack said. “I had to become more of a leader for this team since we had so many upperclassmen leave. I just felt like I had to take the role of being a big brother.

“I have to remember to take some of those guys to the side and help them sometimes, whether it be about their defensive stance or how to handle a certain class. It’s a big transition, but I think it makes me a better teammate.”