It’s one step at a time for Ed Conroy’s new-look Tulane basketball team

It’s 2 a.m. on Monday morning, and Tulane basketball coach Ed Conroy can’t stop watching center Tomas Bruha’s feet.

On the enormous projection screen in a Hertz Center conference room, Conroy watches the 7-footer shift his body into the upper-left corner of the paint while guard Lou Dabney gains a shoulder-length advantage on his defender at the top of the key. Conroy clenches his fist, scribbles on a notepad and rewinds the tape again.

“He just defended Lou from an easy drive to the basket,” Conroy mutters. “We stopped ourselves. That just makes you crazy.”

And that’s a senior.

Considering the fourth-year Green Wave coach is introducing eight freshmen to the college game, the headaches this offseason are exponentially greater than this one. But even four hours after the Green Wave’s 103-74 preseason victory over cross-campus neighbor Loyola, he and his entire staff can’t help but focus on those details.

“He’s always asking what you see and is eager to take your advice because he knows some guys see things he doesn’t and he sees a lot more than us,” said Shammond Williams, Tulane’s newest assistant coach and a seven-year NBA veteran. “I’ve been around a lot of coaches in my career. I played in a lot of places, and he’s just about the best listener I’ve been around.”

Conroy can use all the advice at his disposal, considering the youth he has on hand when Tulane opens its season at 8 p.m. Friday against NJIT in Devlin Fieldhouse. Not only is the duty of handling eight freshmen a monumental task, but doing it while replacing four of his top five scorers has outsiders like ESPN.com predicting Tulane to finish 13th in 14-team Conference USA.

It’s a setback for a program that was finally making its way through the wilderness. After a decade of futility under coaches Shawn Finney and Dave Dickerson, Conroy’s first two teams finished 3-13 in C-USA play before earning a postseason bid — a second-round exit in the CIT on the heels of 19-14 record — last year. Then, the transfer of six players caused even the most ardent supporters to lose optimism entering this year.

It’s an external turmoil Conroy understands, sympathizing with the loyal fans who waited 13 years for the Green Wave to show signs of life, yet the barrage of defections doesn’t command much attention inside of the Hertz Center’s walls. Conroy still speaks fondly when asked about all-conference players Josh Davis and Ricky Tarrant, who opted to leave the school for San Diego State and Alabama, respectively.

“Look, those guys did a lot of great things for us,” Conroy said. “But this team is on a different journey from those guys. They each had the motivation for doing what they decided to do. I’m not saying I agree with it necessarily because they both could have been very successful here this year. But we’re now on a different path, and I’ve truly enjoyed getting the opportunity to coach this group.”

While the pile of Diet Mountain Dew bottles and string of late nights may suggest otherwise, Conroy said the past few weeks of preseason practice have been as enjoyable as any he can remember in 11 years, spent at three schools, as a head coach. After a few hours of sleep Monday morning, his enthusiasm is on display when he’s breaking down the Loyola film again, jotting more notes and openly gushing about his pride in guard Jay Hook.

The junior, who struggled to crack the Green Wave’s veteran backcourt rotation the past two seasons, is now a linchpin of Tulane’s offense but broke his shooting hand in practice two weeks ago. Within hours of the fracture, Hook was X-rayed, driven to the hospital and underwent surgery by day’s end.

“My family was freaking out and they wanted to come in from Texas, but I told them Coach had me,” Hook said. “We went back and watched basketball and hung out, and I pushed through everything just to get back on the floor. And 15 days later, I was playing in a game.”

The whirlwind rehab didn’t slow him down: He scored 19 points against Loyola. It’s those moments that Conroy said has kept him from worrying about his job security or fretting over external issues.

For now, he’s too busy watching the same, tired Loyola tape again. This time it’s in the Hertz Center’s theater, packed with players whose binders are stuffed with information as Conroy attempts to explain shooting percentages and floor-spacing analytics to a room whose majority spent this time last year seeking out a homecoming date.

But Conroy doesn’t back down. He uses white boards to show rebounding opportunities, points per possession based on where shots come on the floor and how many charges were taken compared to what was available. Then he methodically breaks down the tape, challenging players, complimenting others and even giving the occasional impromptu radio call.

“To be honest, we were kind of getting a little old,” he said. “I don’t want to be so regimented in everything we do. Just because something worked better in the past doesn’t mean it’s always the way to do it. We have different players than in the past, so we need to play to their strengths.”

He proves it on the practice floor by tailoring the team’s philosophy, tweak by tweak, to overcome the influx of inexperience while capturing their varied skill sets. Outside of these walls, few people believe the Green Wave is capable of garnering much success this season, and some assume Conroy’s days are numbered.

In those meeting rooms and inside Tulane’s locker room, there is no evidence of any pessimism surrounding the program. There is only a season to be played.

“I know what people are saying about us, but I honestly think we just need a few things to turn our way and a few guys to develop the way they’re capable of for us to be in a really good position,” Conroy said. “There’s nothing better for me than watching guys like Tre Drye, Lou Dabney and Jay Hook step into these roles and watch them become the men they’re capable of being.”