Hunter faces biggest test yet as Cook transfers to LSU

Scott Houtkin, Staff Reporter

Jalen Cook
Jalen Cook is leaving Tulane to head back to LSU. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

Everyone knows the saying “what goes up, must come down.” This is a concept all too familiar in college athletics as programs often rise to prominence with the recruitment and development of elite athletes, all for it to come crashing down when its athletes depart from the program. Top programs like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Connecticut maintain their dominance through a strong sports culture and a timeless pitch to prospective new players: winning. Tulane now faces a massive challenge with the departure of star guard Jalen Cook

Through four seasons with Tulane, men’s basketball coach Ron Hunter has accomplished exactly what Director of Athletics Troy Dannen had hoped, leading the team to success in both the Power Five conference games and American Athletic Conference play — and a conference tournament semi-final appearance this season.

Hunter has already shown in his first four seasons his hardworking nature but even more so his resilience. The program experienced what seemed to be a huge setback in 2021 when Jordan “Jelly” Walker transferred to University of Alabama at Birmingham after posting a strong season. Walker was coming off a breakthrough season as he averaged 13 points, over four assists and nearly two steals per game, all career highs for him. 

At the season’s close, it seemed apparent that he was the anchor for a Tulane basketball program that was trending in the right direction. Jordan Walker thought otherwise. He shocked the program by choosing to enter the transfer portal and going to UAB. The outside world thought this was the end of the program’s promising run, but Ron Hunter was quietly working on a new plan.

Hunter went out and made a huge acquisition of his own in the transfer portal, bringing in a talented but struggling player from an hour-and-a-half west at LSU, Jalen Cook. Cook, a 6-foot point guard from Walker, Louisiana, experienced an illustrious high school career. He won Mr. Louisiana, an award presented to the best basketball player in each state. His success in Walker led him to Southeastern Conference powerhouse LSU, who recruited him hard and convinced Cook to stay close to home after receiving a number of offers from other elite programs. However, after just one season with the Tigers, Cook was unable to find his footing, as he averaged just 3.1 points per game in his limited minutes as a freshman

Discouraged, Cook chose to enter the transfer portal, hoping to gain a fresh start at a school that would showcase the talents that previously made him such a highly touted recruit. However, Hunter saw Cook’s immense talent and recruited him intensely, believing he could be the missing piece he needed to get his team over the hump.

Cook once again chose to remain close to home, this time in New Orleans. Hunter was going to build the team around his talents and give him the keys to the offense. Most importantly, Hunter convinced him — the same way elite programs did when he was coming out of high school — that Tulane was destined to win. Cook connected immediately with Hunter, solidifying a relationship that no other program could match. 

It is safe to say Jalen Cook made the right decision. In two seasons with the Wave, Cook has scored 18 (2021-22) and 19.9 points per game (2022-23), 3.5 and 4.9 assists per game and nearly two steals per game. He was efficient as well, shooting over 42% from the field and over 34% from three in both seasons. Cook provided stability and an instinctive scoring ability as a point guard. He outplayed almost every guard he went head-to-head with and turned Tulane from a promising program into a bonafide AAC contender. 

Jalen Cook
Ron Hunter will have to reload his team without Cook. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

After one of the best basketball seasons in Tulane history, a sense of excitement — similar to that of 2021 — could be felt within the program. However, to the shock of the entire Tulane community, and frankly the entire college basketball nation, Jalen Cook did exactly what Jordan Walker did two years ago. He left, transferring back to LSU. It is easy to understand why; Cook is coming off his best season and has finally got the attention of the elite programs again. He has another opportunity to showcase his talents on the highest stage in college basketball and strengthen his case to be drafted into the NBA next summer. 

For a Tulane basketball program that was ready for its best season in recent memory, though, this loss is absolutely devastating. Just like that, the air in the program was gone. A program just a couple wins away from its first NCAA tournament berth since 1995 was now back in rebuild mode. 

From a logical standpoint, Tulane now needs to find 20 points per game elsewhere, as well as a ball handler who can orchestrate Hunter’s offense at a high level. Assuming nobody else enters the transfer portal or officially enters the NBA Draft — Jaylen Forbes, Kevin Cross and Sion James declared for the NBA Draft but maintain their college eligibility — the rest of the core of the team is still intact. The program will need a huge boost elsewhere if it is going to remain near the top of the AAC. Tulane students and fans are understandably still in shock, but this time there is even more pressure for Hunter to find another diamond in the rough. 

The program this past season was at its peak in recent memory. After little to no expectations from supporters under previous head coach Mike Dunleavy, the expectations are higher than ever. There is a new sense of belief with Hunter at the helm, and even with the shocking loss of their star player, nobody is ready to rule out the Wave just yet. Hunter’s ability to respond to adversity has been instrumental to the program’s success in recent years and will continue to determine the direction of the program going forward. Tulane basketball is at the top, but it is up to Hunter to ensure it does not come crashing down.

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