Sterlin Taplin’s 18 points aren’t enough as TU falls short in the season opener against Lamar.
The University of Tulsa’s 107th season of men’s basketball began play on Friday at noon in front of an absolutely raucous crowd of 7,431. Hoping to start the year off on a positive note after TU’s disappointing football and soccer seasons, the Golden Hurricane welcomed the Lamar University Cardinals into the Reynolds Center. Unfortunately, the result was more of what we’ve become used to in 2017, as the team lost 74-67 for the country’s first upset of the college basketball season.
Point guard Sterling Taplin led the way for TU, playing a team-high 30 minutes and pouring in 18 points on 7-18 shooting. As recommended in our preseason preview, he took on a greater role for the offense, handling the ball nearly every time down the floor, and repeatedly looked to drive into the paint. More than half his shots came in the restricted area. Unfortunately, the explosive Taplin didn’t receive the help he needed from his teammates.
Junior Etou found himself in quick foul trouble just five minutes into the game and sat out the rest of the first half. But even after returning to the game in the second, he was like a ghost on the floor, taking and missing just one shot and finishing with a mere two points on 2-6 shooting from the free throw line. Perhaps Etou was sick or was overly concerned with playing unselfishly (his two assists led the team, though so did his five turnovers in just 17 minutes of play), but whatever the reason, it’s clear that the team isn’t quite ready to perform at a high level when its star is off his game.
Martins Igbanu, coming off the bench when coach Frank Haith elected to go small with a starting frontcourt of Etou and DaQuan Jeffries, led a strong effort by Tulsa’s bench mob. The 6’8” converted center proved that the post moves he showed off in the preseason were no fluke, finishing with 12 points on 3-5 shooting, a team-high seven rebounds and stout interior defense. He still needs to learn how to pass effectively out of the double-teams that will be coming his way more frequently this season, but that skill should come with more reps.
It appears that Haith will be experimenting with a variety of different lineups in the opening games of the season, as Igbanu, Elijah Joiner and Corey Henderson, Jr. each played more than 20 minutes off the pine. As the year progresses, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the latter two replace Jaleel Wheeler in the starting lineup. Wheeler is an upperclassman and has the favor of Coach Haith but his poor shooting limits his effectiveness off the ball. The Golden Hurricane will need as much spacing as possible to compensate for their lack of size up front.
Lamar will likely be one of the smallest schools TU faces, trotting out a miniscule backcourt (Nick Garth and Torey Noel are 6’0” and 5’10” respectively) and a power forward in Colton Weisbrod who measures just 6’5”, 218 lbs. Still, the Cardinals dominated on the boards 42-28 behind Weisbrod’s 13 and led 11-2 in second chance points, all of which helped make up for their poor 42.4 percent shooting. Tulsa will need to make some adjustments or they won’t stand a chance against bigger or more athletic rosters.
One of those adjustments could be starting Igbanu in place of Jeffries. The latter played well, showing off his quick hands on defense and tallying an efficient 12 points, but that skill set works better as an energy guy coming off the bench. Igbanu on the other hand looked like TU’s lynchpin on both ends of the floor when he was out there and should be playing as much as possible. Coach Haith’s puzzling decision to bench him for Jeffries with three minutes to go lost the game for the Golden Hurricane when the Cardinals scored two easy buckets in the paint and snatched a key offensive rebound.
Tulsa’s next game is Monday against Oral Roberts, having lost three of their past four matchups against the crosstown rivals. They will then travel to the Puerto Rico Tipoff tournament, which was relocated to Myrtle Beach in the wake of Hurricane Maria.