The 2013-14 season didn't get off to the best of starts for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. A tough nonconference schedule, combined with a young roster, left TU with a 1-6 start and just 4-9 at the beginning of 2014.
But, as happens with most teams, the youngsters grew up, the schedule got easier, and the Golden Hurricane went on a tear. Since the calendar flipped from December to January, Tulsa is 11-3 and is currently sitting at 10-3 in Conference USA—just a game behind conference leader Middle Tennessee.
Thursday night, the Golden Hurricane travels to El Paso, Texas, to take on UTEP, an equally surprising team and one of four team at 10-3 in the conference standings.
Tulsa comes into the game winners of five straight games and six of their past seven. Their only loss in that time came on the road against Louisiana Tech—yet another 10-3 C-USA team—a 66-61 decision the Hurricane probably should have won.
TU isn't going to the NCAA tournament without the C-USA automatic bid firmly in hand. However, given the way the Golden Hurricane has played over the past two months, is there any reason to think that is not a possibility?
Thursday night's matchup with the Miners is the last for Tulsa against the other top teams in the conference. So far, Tulsa is 2-1 against the others, defeating Middle Tennessee and Southern Mississippi, while losing the aforementioned game at Louisiana Tech—which also beat Oklahoma in Norman back in December.
It's also important because in the 16-team Conference USA, the top-four seeds get a double-bye in the conference tournament. Right now, with a loss at UTEP, the Golden Hurricane would get the No. 5 seed and only get one bye. A win would all but assure the Golden Hurricane of a top-four seed, barring a slip-up in the last two games of the season.
Thursday won't determine Tulsa's ability to win the Conference USA tournament, but it can go a long way toward making that road a bit easier for the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa is playing some very good basketball right now and based on how they've fared against the other top teams in the conference, there's plenty of reason to expect the tournament—also in El Paso—to be a very exciting affair.
However, Tulsa won't consider it exciting unless they come out of it on top with a punched ticket to the NCAA tournament. After a rough start to the season, they have as good a chance as anyone to make that happen.