The Houston Cougars’ backs are against the wall as they enter Saturday’s 7 p.m. matchup at Memphis.
After shooting 17-of-67 from the field in a 78-71 loss to Central Florida on Wednesday at Hofheinz Pavilion, UH (10-8, 3-2) appears to be headed toward a freefall in the Conference USA standings. But they have a chance to regain some respect by defeating Memphis (13-5, 3-1) on Saturday at FedExForum.
Saturday’s game expects to be UH’s best chance to earn its first victory over the Tigers since Feb. 5, 2005. After former head coach John Calipari (252 wins, one Final Four in nine seasons at Memphis) accepted a job at Kentucky last offseason, Memphis has fallen out of the national rankings, but is still regarded as the conference’s premier program.
The Tigers had won 64 consecutive C-USA contests before falling to UTEP, 72-67, on Wednesday.
Heavy criticism, other issues may be hurting focus
The Cougars are taking a beating from the local media, as radio show hosts such as KBME’s Matt Jackson have called for head coach Tom Penders’ dismissal. They also took a beating on the court against a much more physical UCF squad, which shot 50.9 percent and won the points-in-the-paint battle 42-22 because of a dominating performance around the basket.
Throw in that Penders said guard Kelvin Lewis is suffering from an illness and forward Maurice McNeil was removed from the starting lineup of Wednesday’s contest because he missed the first day of classes for the spring semester and it’s difficult to believe that UH is on the verge of playing its best ball yet under Penders.
Instead, the Cougars could be headed toward a freefall in the C-USA standings.
“If we come out flat and let people beat us down low and knock us around, we’re not going to win,” said Lewis, who is averaging 17 points per game this season, after the loss to UCF.
This isn’t anything new for UH. The Cougars are again suffering from a lack of an aggressive inside presence, as they are averaging only 33.4 rebounds per game.
If Penders is going to keep his job, it’s likely that he will have to lead UH to a Conference USA Tournament title. With a Ratings Percentage Index of 135, the Cougars’ can’t even expect to make the tourney if they win the rest of their games.
Hope still alive, but turnaround appears doubtful
But if UH can earn its second victory over Memphis in the Penders era — and its first win over the Tigers since Penders’ first season at UH — it may receive a much-needed boost.
The Cougars, who sit in sixth place in the C-USA standings, still have matchups with Marshall (15-3, 4-0), UTEP (12-5, 3-1) and UAB (16-2, 4-0) remaining on their schedule. They’re only 1.5 games out of first place, but have done nothing outside of Houston in 2009-2010 that warrants excessive celebration.
This season, UH is 0-3 on the road against Division I teams with winning records. The Cougars’ defense was far from impressive in these games, as it allowed a combined 277 points.
UH has also lost three of its last four home games and is 1-2 at Hofheinz Pavilion against C-USA foes in 2010.
Numbers like these typically don’t point to a drastic turnaround, but a win over the program that has set the standard for basketball in C-USA over the last few seasons could provide the spark that the Cougars desperately need.
“We went through all (the struggles) in non-conference,” UH’s leading scorer Aubrey Coleman said. “It’s like we’re going backwards now. There’s no excuse for that.”