With nine victories in their last 10 games, not only has Memphis carved distance from the three-game losing skid that pushed its season to the brink in mid-January, it has firmly entrenched itself on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A strong showing in the American Athletic Conference tournament late next week could be enough to secure a bid.
With their 73-64 win over South Florida on Thursday, the Tigers (18-9, 12-5 American) set the table for the regular-season finale to extend their momentum heading into the conference tournament. Memphis will host #14 Houston on Sunday looking to complete a season sweep of the regular-season conference champions, with a victory only bolstering the Tigers' hopes for securing an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers rode a 15-0 run down the stretch of the second half into a 69-59 win at Houston on Feb. 12, a victory that snapped the Cougars' 37-game home-court win streak. Memphis limited the Cougars to a season-low point total while forcing Houston into a season-worst 19 turnovers.
The win was the fifth in a row for Memphis and signaled a turnaround from earlier woes. Houston has won six consecutive games since, but the Tigers made their statement.
“We understood getting over the hump and we didn't want any more moral victories,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “We went into Houston to fight and we won a big game.
“They didn't get a chance to come here last year like we needed them to, but with them coming here it's going to be another battle, another fight.”
Houston has been a fixture in the national rankings all season. Should both teams maintain their current trajectory, there's a possibility of a third meeting in the conference tournament.
“Houston is one of the tougher teams,” Hardaway said. “If we continue to win, we know that they're going to continue to win, we're going to see them again.”
The Cougars (26-4, 15-2) survived the conference gauntlet despite a rotation shortened by the loss of frontline guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries. When Houston lost back-to-back games to SMU and Memphis in February, its lack of depth was exposed.
Houston has since rediscovered its stride and is playing some of its best basketball. The Cougars' last four wins have come by an average margin of 21 points, and while their rotation hasn't been expanded by a tangible margin, the Cougars have been able to dig a bit deeper into their bench by virtue of the blowouts, a timely development with the regular season drawing to a close.
The matchup with the Tigers will be the fourth game in eight days for Houston. With the conference title already in hand and the top seed for the conference tournament secure, it remains to be seen whether Houston will play its rotation players for extended minutes Sunday.
“Four games in eight days is tough,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “I don't think you can plan anything. You just play it by ear.”