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Monday, May 25, 2020

Men's Basketball

Cougars set eyes on tournament championship

Fiona Legesse/The Cougar

The Cougars will head to Memphis this weekend in search of its first American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship after a standout season.

Houston was a bucket away from winning the tournament last season and is looking to follow up its regular season title with a tournament one.

Houston is the clear favorite as the No. 1 seed heading into the tournament. Experts also have UCF, one of just two teams to beat UH, on the same side of the bracket while No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 3 Temple are on the other side of the bracket.

These four teams are almost all locks for the NCAA Tournament, but an AAC Tournament Championship would secure a spot in it.

Surveying the field

UH is 29-2 overall and 16-2 in the AAC. Every conference win has been by at least two possessions, and both losses were by less than two possessions.

Houston is led by seniors Corey Davis Jr., Galen Robinson Jr. and Breaon Brady. Davis Jr. has been an elite shooter, Brady is a defensive rock in the paint and Robinson Jr. is the court general and distributor.

The Cougars also have incredible depth with a clear backup to every starter, including the AAC Sixth Man of the Year, redshirt sophomore DeJon Jarreau.

The next tier of teams is UCF, Cincinnati and Temple. Both the Owls and Knights have beaten the Cougars, but the Bearcats fell in H-Town and were demolished on its home court on Senior Day.

UCF’s giant senior center Tacko Fall was key in his team’s win over Houston, and UH head coach Kelvin Sampson said Fall’s presence basically cuts the playbook in half since going into the paint was incredibly difficult.

Even with Fall on the floor, Houston found ways to score but ultimately lost due to poor free-throw shooting and UCF’s tough defense.

Cincinnati has the conference Player of the Year, junior Jarron Cumberland, who leads the team in points, assists and steals per game.

Cumberland had 27 and 20 points in his two games against Houston but was benched near the end of its most recent game for not rotating on defense, not rebounding and because he was tired, said Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin after the game.

Temple is the weakest of the top four, with its only marquee wins being against Houston and UCF and none from out of conference, but it does have a couple threats.

Senior Shizz Alston Jr. has been its point leader this season but was quiet in both games against Houston. Junior Quinton Rose has shown up big against the Cougars, though. He scored 22 in the first matchup and 26 in the second, but Houston did keep him to sub-.365 accuracy in both games.

Under the radar

While the top four seeds have understandably taken most of the attention, a big dark horse of the tournament is the host team.

Memphis has had a peculiar season under first-year head coach Penny Hardaway, and it has been a bit above the teams outside of the top four but has not taken the big step to take down a ranked opponent.

It lost to Cincinnati, LSU, Texas Tech, Houston and Tennessee while each of those teams were ranked, and only the Cincinnati games were close at the end.

After it lost to Houston, Hardaway said he needed the seniors to step up, take responsibility and push their underclassmen more.

That seems to have happened, as senior Jeremiah Martin has averaged 29.3 points per game since February started and was a contender for the AAC Player of the Year along with Cumberland and Davis Jr.

One thing the team has done well is learn from losses. Memphis lost its first matchup against Tulsa 95-79 but won the rematch 66-63. The Tigers fell to the Owls 85-76 before winning the rematch 81-73.

With its penchant for learning quick and the home court advantage, Memphis is an underrated threat to make a deep run and knock off some top teams in the tournament.

Houston’s first game will be 11 a.m. Friday against UConn at the FedExForum.

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