Memphis coach John Calipari was worried his team would struggle during its challenging nonconference schedule. As they open league play, the Tigers have a new concern to deal with.
Memphis (13-2) looks to continue its improvement against the zone defense when it visits East Carolina (6-7) on Wednesday in the Conference USA opener for both teams.
Texas used a zone defense to beat Memphis on Jan. 2, and the fifth-ranked Tigers know they will likely see more of the same as the season progresses.
“Everybody saw the Texas game, so everybody thinks we don’t play well against a zone,” Memphis guard Darius Washington said. “It was one of those games with Texas that we weren’t hitting shots. They weren’t falling our way.
“Now teams think they can just play a zone. They don’t know we have too many weapons and that game against Texas was really a fluke. They really can’t play us (man-to-man) because we have too many weapons. They will just sit back in the zone and pray that we’re not making shots that day.”
The Longhorns ended Memphis’ season-high eight-game winning streak by employing a zone defense that held the Tigers to 29 percent shooting in a 69-58 victory at The Pyramid. Memphis has rebounded with consecutive wins, including Sunday’s 73-63 victory over visiting Winthrop.
Rodney Carney scored 21 points and Washington added seven of his 14 during a key stretch as the Tigers shot 48 percent in their third straight game against a team intent on keeping them from getting man-to-man coverage.
“I’m just happy that it is over,” Calipari said of Memphis’ nonconference schedule that included games against four ranked opponents. “(Winthrop) is one of those games that you schedule at the beginning of the year for one reason, and that is to help our RPI. Now that we have won the game, it is a great game for us.”
The Pirates have won three of four since a season-high five-game losing streak, including an 80-74 come-from-behind victory over Division II St. Paul’s College on Saturday. The win, however, came at a cost.
Sophomore guard Tom Hammonds sprained his left ankle and will join senior forward Mike Castro (foot) on the sidelines. Castro hasn’t played since Dec. 18 and is out indefinitely.
Corey Rouse had 22 points and 15 rebounds Saturday for East Carolina, which trailed by nine points at halftime.
“(Saint Paul’s) came out and played very hard,” Rouse said. “Division II teams are always coming out against Division I teams to prove a point and get a win. In the first half we took them for granted and didn’t play well, but in the second half we really played our type of basketball and got the win.”
Carney scored 19 points as the Tigers beat East Carolina 72-66 in Memphis last February to take a 3-0 lead in the all-time series.