Memphis already has clinched its third straight Conference USA regular-season title, but surely would like to finish it off in emphatic fashion again.
The second-ranked Tigers look to move within one win of a second consecutive perfect regular season in conference play when they visit SMU on Wednesday night.
Memphis (28-1, 14-0) won 76-67 at Southern Mississippi on Saturday to claim the league title and run its C-USA winning streak to 37 games. The Tigers have won two in a row since losing its No. 1 ranking after a 66-62 home loss to then-No. 2 Tennessee.
Memphis, though, struggled against the Golden Eagles, allowing them to shoot 54.2 percent - the best of any Tigers’ opponent this season - and trailing by six early in the second half.
That could have played a part in poll voters moving North Carolina from No. 3 into the top spot and ahead of the Tigers this week after previously top-ranked Tennessee lost at then-No. 18 Vanderbilt on Feb. 26.
Though Memphis already has secured the No. 1 seed for next week’s C-USA tournament, the team would prefer to enter it with an unbeaten league record for the second straight year. Last season, the Tigers joined the 1999-00 Cincinnati squad as the only C-USA teams to go 16-0 in conference play.
Memphis looks to win its sixth straight over SMU (9-18, 3-11) before closing the regular season at home against UAB, which lost to the Tigers by a point in Birmingham on Feb. 16 and was the last conference member to beat them—80-74 on March 2, 2006.
The Tigers hope for a more complete effort against the Mustangs than they gave Saturday.
Freshman Derrick Rose had 23 points and scored the team’s final seven as Memphis was able to put away a pesky Southern Miss squad.
“I didn’t want to lose,” said Rose, who had six assists. “I just did everything not to lose.”
Leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts had 22 points and combined with Rose to score Memphis’ last 16 points to help the Tigers win despite being outscored 34-26 in the paint.
“(Rose) has a will to win like no other and I think he and Chris (Douglas-Roberts) just said, ‘We’re not going to lose this game,’” Memphis coach John Calipari said.
Rose, a possible 2008 NBA lottery pick who averages 14.2 points, bounced back after scoring nine in an 82-67 win over Tulsa on Wednesday. He had 23 points on 7-for-8 shooting against Tennessee.
Though the Tigers survived a stiff test Saturday, they could be in for an easier time against SMU after beating the Mustangs 77-48 at home on Feb. 6. Rose and Douglas-Roberts were held to a combined 14 points, but reserve Andre Allen scored 19 points and Joey Dorsey had a double-double for the Tigers, who led 40-18 at halftime.
SMU won 99-96 over UTEP in double-overtime on Saturday to snap a five-game losing streak. Senior Jon Killen went 7-for-11 from 3-point range and finished with a career-high 33 points for the Mustangs.
Killen, the team’s leading scorer at 13.1 points per contest, had 12 against Memphis in February as SMU was held to 32.1 percent from the field.