Despite playing its best defense in nine seasons under coach John Calipari, Memphis is searching for more respect on a national level.
The No. 5 Tigers can further help their cause by shutting down one of Conference USA’s top offensive teams and extending the nation’s longest current winning streak Saturday when it visits UTEP.
Closing in on a fourth straight Conference USA title, Memphis (23-3, 11-0) had little trouble recording its 53rd consecutive victory over a league opponent with a 90-47 win over SMU on Wednesday.
Memphis will try for an 18th straight victory overall since losing 72-65 to then-No. 11 Syracuse on Dec. 20.
Giving up 59.0 points per game, the Tigers are among the top defensive teams in the country. None of Calipari’s previous eight Memphis teams allowed fewer than 61.9 on average.
“Really, defensively, we’re getting better,” said Calipari, whose team is holding opponents to 37.3 percent shooting to rank third in the nation.
Memphis has been stingier in its last four contests, allowing an average of 45.3 points and 35.1 percent shooting in beating then-No. 18 Gonzaga, Tulsa, Southern Mississippi and SMU by an average margin of 28.0 points.
Despite their defensive dominance, the Tigers still feel they are not getting their due in that area.
“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder,” said junior Shawn Taggart, who had 19 points against SMU. “A lot of people are saying that UConn has a better defense. That Pittsburgh has a better defense. North Carolina.
“But in the country, right now, I don’t see anybody playing better than us defensively.”
While those schools are ranked higher than Memphis in the AP poll, none can make that claim when it comes to scoring defense and opponents’ shooting percentage.
“They are a very good team, and they can make a lot of people look bad,” SMU coach Matt Doherty said of the Tigers, who forced 22 turnovers and held his Mustangs to 30.9 percent shooting.
Memphis’ Robert Dozier had 14 points Wednesday and is averaging 16.5 on 59.3 percent shooting in his last six games.
Though the Tigers are looking for a sixth straight win over UTEP, they could face a tough test against the Miners (16-9, 7-4), who are averaging 76.2 points - third in the conference behind Memphis (76.4 ppg) and Houston (78.5).
Led by senior Stefon Jackson, the league’s second-leading scorer at 23.1 points per game, UTEP has won three in a row and has played Memphis tough the last two seasons.
Jackson had 27 points as the Miners led by two with under 4 minutes remaining before falling 70-64 at then-No. 1 Memphis on Feb. 2, 2008. He had 19 with 12 rebounds in 2007, when UTEP hung close most of the way in a 78-67 home loss to the Tigers.
Jackson had 23 points in a 67-58 win at Rice on Wednesday after scoring 35, including 20-for-20 at the free-throw line, in a 74-67 home victory over Marshall last Saturday. He’s averaged 27.8 points in his last four home games.
In their third season under former Memphis assistant Tony Barbee, the Miners look to avoid a 12th consecutive loss versus a ranked opponent since beating then-No. 20 Fresno State 80-61 on Feb. 17, 2001.