Memphis dominated Conference USA in recent years after two top programs left for the Big East. Getting those schools back in their league could factor in the Tigers not having such an easy time in the American Athletic Conference.
Those opponents share the new conference’s best record and are the next two on the schedule for 18th-ranked Memphis, which hopes to ride a strong AAC debut into a home win over Cincinnati on Saturday.
The Tigers won six of the eight regular-season C-USA championships and all but one of the league’s tournament titles following the departure of Cincinnati and Louisville in 2005. Either the Bearcats or the Cardinals had won the previous four C-USA tournaments.
Memphis (10-2, 1-0) renews its rivalry with Cincinnati (12-2, 1-0) before visiting No. 14 Louisville on Thursday. The defending national champion Cardinals and 17th-ranked Connecticut may pose the biggest challenge to the Tigers, but the Bearcats finished fourth behind that trio in the AAC preseason coaches’ poll.
Cincinnati hasn’t faced a ranked opponent but has wins over ACC foes Pittsburgh and North Carolina State. Memphis’ only losses have been to Top 25 teams Oklahoma State – which it later avenged – and Florida.
"I’m sure they’re gonna be excited to see the Bearcats again, their fan base. They really love us," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin joked.
"… It’s just great for the fans to have Memphis back in our league. … Their talent level is tremendous."
It’s just great for the fans to have Memphis back in our league. … Their talent level is tremendous.
The Tigers opened conference play Tuesday with one of their best performances, winning 88-73 at South Florida. Memphis shot 52.4 percent, led by as many as 29 points and was never threatened in the second half.
"For us to be able to win on the road against a team like that, that’s well coached, it’s a real positive," coach Josh Pastner said.
Cincinnati shot just 36.5 percent at home Wednesday in its AAC debut, but defeated SMU 65-57. The Bearcats have allowed an average of 53.8 points during a five-game winning streak.
That good defense has helped them overcome the shooting struggles of Sean Kilpatrick, averaging a league-best 18.6 points, as the competition has stiffened. He’s shot 34.0 percent, including 12 of 49 from 3-point range, in the last seven games as Cincinnati has played four major conference foes along with 2013 NCAA tournament teams New Mexico and Middle Tennessee. Against the first seven opponents – only one made the NCAAs or was from a major conference – Kilpatrick shot 53.6 percent while making 23 of 47 3-point attempts.
"If I am down on myself even a little bit," Kilpatrick said, "this guy (Justin Jackson) slapped me in the head and told me to keep shooting. That’s a good thing."
Jackson has also helped by stepping up his game.
Known more for his energy and defensive prowess, the senior is averaging 16.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.3 blocks over the last four games. He’s scored in double figures in five straight, shooting 62.3 percent, after doing so 10 times in his first 111 collegiate games.
"Coach needs me to be a scorer this year, so that is what I am doing," Jackson said after having 17 points, five blocks and five steals Wednesday.
Jackson will be matched up with Shaq Goodwin, who averaged 17.8 points on 77.8 percent shooting in four home games last month.
Memphis, though, gets much of its scoring from perimeter players. Joe Jackson averages 15.2 points while fellow guards Michael Dixon Jr. and Chris Crawford account for 20.4 per game with 39 3-pointers.
The Tigers tied a season high with eight 3s on Tuesday and are second-worst among AAC teams in 3-pointers made (59) and accuracy (30.7 percent).
"When you make 3s, coach looks good," Pastner said. "Making 3-point shots are important."
The Tigers have won 18 straight at home and have taken the last four meetings with Cincinnati, most recently Dec. 29, 2008.