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Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Tourney could spell NCAA for Cougars

If the Cougars don’t come out of this week’s Conference USA Tournament in Memphis as the champions it won’t be the end of the world, or the end of their season of 20-plus wins.

Rest assured, a National Invitational Tournament bid will be waiting if the NCAA selection committee doesn’t release Houston’s name in its field of 65 teams.

That route, however, is exactly the direction the Cougars do not want to go in. Houston’s road to a C-USA championship and an automatic bid to the ‘Big Dance’ will run through teams that have already taken them out during the regular season, but according to senior guard Marcus Malone anything less than taking home the championship trophy would make this season a disappointment.

"If we lose, our season’s over and it’s a failure," Malone said. "Anything but getting to the championship game and winning is a failure. Each and every day we realize that we’re already dead, and if we don’t get the job done – it’s over."

The Cougars enter the tournament as the No. 3 seed. Their first game will be between the winner of the Southern Methodist/Texas-El Paso matchup. If the favored Miners advance over the Mustangs, Houston will have a chance to take out one of the teams that halted its chances as an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.

Penders said having the chance to play a tough squad one last time on a neutral site is what conference tournaments are made for.

"That’s what tournaments are all about," Penders said. "We play these teams during the year. It’s either time for payback or you’re trying to keep them down.

"In this case, (UTEP) beat us on their senior night at home, and they played really well. They deserved to win the game because we weren’t good enough to hold on to it. There were a few correct things we could have done down the stretch to hold on to that four-point lead."

Houston dropped its final game of the season against UTEP and also lost four of its final eight games of conference play. They could have a chance to play Alabama-Birmingham or East Carolina, another two of the four teams it lost to on the road in the final weeks of the season.

UAB, the No. 2 seed, would be the most likely match-up for the Cougars if they were to advance to the semi-finals.

The path to the championship trophy is expected to be blocked by C-USA bully Memphis. The Tigers have an Associated Press Poll No. 2 ranking on their side and what has been described as one of the toughest home-court advantages in the nation at the Fed-Ex Forum.

Malone said he looks forward to playing them.

"It brings the best out of us," Malone said. "Playing in environments like Memphis is always fun, because the crowd’s against you. It’s national TV. Everybody’s watching. You’ve got to love environments like that."

Penders said he will need guys like Malone and other role players to step up and take the load off of First Team Conference USA selection Robert "Fluff" McKiver if the Cougars plan on going anywhere in the Tournament.

"We’re far from being a one or two-man team," Penders said. "Every team we play focuses on stopping McKiver. There are a lot of opportunities out there for other guys to really help out."

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