No. 23 Houston looks to keep momentum during trip to Memphis

Surging Houston is back in the top 25 for the first time in 13 years but will have to do some work to stay there, beginning with Thursday’s game with resurgent Memphis in what has become a key American Athletic Conference game at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn.

The 23rd-ranked Cougars (21-5, 11-3 in AAC play) have won five straight games (and seven of their past eight), including their latest benchmark victory over then-No. 5 Cincinnati on Feb. 15. Houston followed up that game with a 21-point win on the road at Temple in which the Cougars scored the contest’s first 15 points and rolled to the easy victory.

“(The ranking) gives our program great credibility,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “It gives our kids something they can touch and say ‘look what we accomplished.’ It means you’re one of the 25 best teams in America.”

That status has been rare — and fleeting — for the Cougars since the early 1980s when they were regularly among college basketball’s elite programs. Houston has spent just three weeks in the rankings since finishing as national runner-up in 1983-84. The Cougars were ranked No. 25 for two weeks in 1992 and for one week in December 2005.

In Houston’s most recent win at Temple, Corey Davis Jr. scored 20 points (with nine of those on three 3-pointers in the first three and a half minutes) while Devin Davis forged a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. The Cougars amassed a 53-22 rebounding edge in the victory.

With its two wins last week and Cincinnati’s pair of losses to Houston and No. 12 Wichita State, both the Cougars and Shockers are within one game of UC’s conference lead with four games to play.

“Words can’t explain what the ranking means to us, because that’s one of our goals,” Corey Davis said after the win against Temple. “But even after this game, coach is telling us what we need to do better. We get no reward for being 21-5. The season’s still going, and we want to stay hungry. There’s a lot of things we still want to accomplish.”

Memphis (16-11, 7-7 in AAC play) might be playing its best basketball of the season, bringing a two-game win streak (both on the road) into Thursday’s game. This surge comes on the heels of a stretch in which it lost five of six games that prompted Tigers coach Tubby Smith to ditch his man-to-man defense in favor of a 2-3 zone.

“One of the things we talked about is being able to fight through those adversities when things are not going well and make the stops, get the stops and the make the plays,” Smith said. “Our zone defense has been the key to that.”

The move to the zone highlights the length Memphis possesses on the perimeter.

“It’s actually helping us a lot because we’re not all kind of spread out,” the Tigers’ Jeremiah Martin added about the new defense. “It’s good for us because it eliminates a lot of dribble penetration.”

Smith said that the Tigers must improve their footwork, containment and close-outs to compete with Houston, which ranks second in the AAC in scoring and field-goal percentage.

“To bounce back and get these two wins, it gives us a lot of confidence,” Memphis’ Mike Parks Jr. said. “We just got to keep it up.”

This is the only time these two teams will meet this season. Memphis leads the overall series with the Cougars, which began on Dec. 8, 1956, 31-15.

Houston won the most recent meeting and has captured two of the past three games between the two teams, including a 72-71 victory in Memphis last year that snapped a 14-game road losing streak to the Tigers dating back to the 2001-02 season. Memphis owns a 19-4 all-time home record against the Cougars.