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January 23, 2014

Memphis-Houston Game Preview

The No. 23 ranked Memphis Tigers (13-4, 3-2 AAC) must start thinking about March with 16 regular-season games left. The fans want a year to remember with five seniors leaving the program at season's end.

Coach Josh Pastner has mentioned over and over again that his four senior guards (Chris Crawford, Michael Dixon, Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson) have to play well. Now would be a good time for the self-styled "Four Kings" to turn up the heat and lead the Tigers on a winning streak.

The Tigers are currently 0-2 at home in conference play with losses to No. 15 Cincinnati Bearcats and the Connecticut Huskies. Memphis will get the chance to get their first win of the season at home in conference play when they take on the Houston Cougars (11-7, 3-2 AAC) Thursday night at the FedEx Forum.

Memphis is tied with the Cougars for fourth place in the AAC.

Houston got their third win in conference play on Sunday at home against Rutgers by the final score of 77-55. Freshman forward Danrad "Chicken" Knowles was the game's leading scorer with 16 points to go along with eight rebounds. Sophomore forward Danuel House finished the game with 14 points, six rebounds, and two assists. TaShawn Thomas and Brandon Morris had 12 points apiece while Jherrod Stiggers pitched in 11 points.

As a team, the Cougars shot a solid 50 percent (29-of-58) from the field and 44 percent (11-of-25) from the three-point line. They struggled at the free throw line, however, converting just 61.5 percent (8-of-13) from the charity stripe.

That efficient shooting from the field helped lead the Cougars to victory over Rutgers. However, they lost the rebounding battle 49-38. Rutgers failed to properly capitalize on their superiority on the glass and squandered the opportunity to nail a big win on the road.

For the season, Houston is averaging a mediocre 71.2 points a game while the defense allowing their opponents to score an average of 68.1 points a game. Thise are not the kind of numbers one would expect from an upper-tier opponent but the Cougars keep finding ways to win games.

If Houston wants to beat Memphis in front of Tiger Nation, then they will have to play aggressive defense and make smart decisions with the basketball. TaShawn Thomas is their go-to-guy on offense and he will have to set the tone early in the game.

Houston simply cannot allow Memphis to get easy transition points. The Tigers thrive on getting out in the open floor for easy layups and dunks. Memphis is averaging over 20 points a game in fast break opportunities. If Houston can somehow stop Memphis from their run-and-gun style of play, then the Cougars could get the win and push Memphis to an 0-3 home conference record.

As for the Tigers, the senior guards will have to set the tone early in the game and find a rhythm on the offensive end of the court. Jackson hasn't been quite as consistent of an offensive threat that he was in his junior season and has been in a shooting slump.

In each of the two games before the Tigers' win over Division II school LeMoyne-Owen College last Saturday, Jackson shot 28.6 percent (4-of-14) from the field. Yet, he's still leading the team in scoring with 13.8 points a game, similar to what he scored 2012-'13.

As a team, Memphis is averaging a healthy 80.7 points per game on 47.7 percent shooting (507-of-1062) from the field. Free throws have been a major problem, as the Tigers have converted a mere 65.2 percent (275-of-422) from the line.

Michael Dixon, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson have no other choice but to step up to the challenge of being one of the best backcourts in the country. They crowned themselves with that status last summer and so far, they have been inconsistent at best in their production on the court.

Pastner needs more from his seniors if this team wants to go far. The seniors understand that this team simply has to learn ways to win games against some of the toughest competition in all of NCAA Division I basketball.

"We are going to be a better team. We are trying to win every game all the way up to the tournament, but this is a learning process," Johnson said when asked about the comparisons of last year's Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference. "We didn't have this learning process last year. We won every game in conference so this is just a learning process in willing ourselves a way to get a win. So we will know how to do that when it comes time to get into the tournament."

The game between Memphis and Houston is slated for Thursday at 7 p.m. CST in Memphis, TN at the FedEx Forum. The game will be televised on ESPNews.


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