Klein column: Winning C-USA Tournament is Tulsa's next challenge
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Sunday, March 06, 2011
3/06/11 at 5:35 AM
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Related story: Hurtt, TU secure C-USA No. 2 seed.
Original Print Headline: Next challenge awaits Tulsa: Win three, make tournament
There was a lot of Tulsa basketball history at the Reynolds Center on Saturday night.
Many former players and coaches came to celebrate the 100th season of TU basketball.
TU's current Golden Hurricane team is trying to add a little history of its own.
The last time Tulsa went to the NCAA Tournament, in 2003, the Golden Hurricane did it by winning the league tournament. Fresno State won the WAC regular season, but TU won the WAC Tournament and went on to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Golden Hurricane hasn't been back to the NCAAs since Wisconsin hit a miracle shot at the buzzer to beat TU.
"That's our goal, get back in the tournament," Justin Hurtt said. "We're playing for March. We have prepared all season for this."
Hurtt appears determined to end that drought for TU.
He hit several beyond-belief shots, 3-pointers with guys hanging on him, and scored 25 points as Tulsa knocked off Southern Miss 78-70.
"He's a notch above because he is so athletic and clutch," said Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy. "He's going to play in the NBA."
On the last night of the regular season, TU brought back many of the players who turned Tulsa into a basketball power over the last 50 years.
That included three All-Americans - Steve Harris, Jim King and Eric Coley. Coley was the star on Tulsa's 2000 team that reached the Elite Eight, the best NCAA Tournament in school history.
"I think we have great confidence going to our conference tournament," said Hurtt. "It is a tough league. No game is easy.
"We've grown so much. We're not taking anything for granted."
The current Golden Hurricane hope some of that magic from the past will rub off on them.
Tulsa (18-12) will need some of the golden finishes from the past when it goes to El Paso, Texas, for the Conference USA Tournament this week.
The Golden Hurricane is the second seed in a tournament that would appear wide open for just about anyone to win.
Most believe up to seven teams could win the tournament.
"I'd take it even beyond that," said Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik.
UAB will go into the C-USA Tournament as the top seed and may be the only team with an outside shot to get an NCAA Tournament bid regardless of what happens.
But no one should feel safe in the tournament. Other than UAB and TU, the other teams that would realistically be considered legitimate contenders are host UTEP, Southern Miss, Memphis, Marshall and SMU.
"Seriously, the last-place team could win it," said Eustachy. "There really are six or seven legitimate teams that could win it. But nothing would surprise me."
TU started slowly this season, so it has no chance to reach the NCAA Tournament without winning the automatic NCAA bid through the league tournament this week.
That is certainly not out of the question.
"When you watched film of them (Hurricane) early, they were just terrible," said Eustachy. "Doug has done a great job. They are a really good team now. They know who they are."
This was no easy task, even at home with the second largest crowd of the season (6,571).
"Great crowd," Wojcik said. "Great enthusiasm."
Southern Miss is very good on the interior. Former Oklahoma State player Gary Flowers scored 15 points and fouled out two TU players.
The Golden Eagles dominated inside and held a firm edge in rebounding (34-27).
Tulsa got only seven second-chance points.
"That was a really good team we played," said Hurtt. "That was a tough challenge for us."
Now, the toughest challenge of the season awaits Tulsa in El Paso.
The Golden Hurricane must win three games to reach the NCAAs.
"If we shoot it well (we can win C-USA)," said Wojcik. "We've played well down there in El Paso."
Tulsa's Jordan Clarkson gets around a Southern Miss defender Saturday. Clarkson finished with 18 points for the Golden Hurricane. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World