Ninth-ranked Houston will put the finishing touches on a stellar regular season Sunday, seeking a fourth consecutive victory and continued momentum heading into the American Athletic Conference tournament that kicks off Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Cougars (20-3, 13-3 AAC) will host Memphis(15-6, 11-3) on Sunday.
Houston has thrived with a high-scoring backcourt paced by Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser plus a deep frontcourt that defends and rebounds with equal vigor. And the Cougars have excelled because a pair of fifth-year seniors, Justin Gorham and DeJon Jarreau, have provided the leadership necessary to keep the program humming.
"We've always had great player leadership here. That's why we've been consistently good," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. "It starts with having good players, but you better have some leaders that care more about winning than they do statistics."
Against Memphis, the Cougars will face a team with the same commitment to defensive might. COVID-19 postponements prevented the Cougars and the Tigers from squaring off earlier this season, pushing this eagerly anticipated showdown to the final day of the regular season.
"They just don't let you in your offense," Sampson said of the Tigers. "They play unlike anybody else, but they're really, really good at it.
"They're the best defensive team we've prepared for. They create more problems for you than other teams. They're really good at what they do, and it really fits their personnel well, too."
Memphis has won three consecutive games since returning from its second pause of activities this season. The Tigers are riding a six-game winning streak overall and are 9-2 since their first pause this season, with those two losses coming by a combined three points.
Now they get a chance to prove themselves against one of the nation's top-ranked teams.
"We know it's a big game," Tigers coach Penny Hardaway said Friday. "We know what we have to do. We know the mindset we have to have going to that game. And we're preaching that every second while we're in that building, I mean, in that gym. And if that bothers guys, it makes them a little bit more nervous, then hopefully the jitters won't last for long."
Memphis sits third in league standings seemingly is peaking at the right time. Sampson lauded the Tigers' athleticism and length and noted specifically the contributions of junior forward DeAndre Williams, a Houston native who is one of only a handful of players nationally averaging at least 10 points, six rebounds, 3.5 assists and two steals per game.
Williams and Landers Nolley II (team-high 13.1 points per game) will lead the fight against Houston. Hardaway knows what that battle will entail.
"You've got to match the physicality," Hardaway said. "You've got to rebound, you've got to box out and you've got to be tough and strong with the ball because they over-help. They come very strong, they come physical and it's just that game. You've got to match their intensity and physicality. ...
"You've got to win big games on the road. I want to be a coach that's known for winning big games on the road, so we'll see what happens Sunday."
--Field Level Media