Both Gonzaga and Memphis have been fixtures in the NCAA tournament in recent seasons while dominating their relatively unheralded leagues, and little has changed for the 17th-ranked Bulldogs.
But the Tigers have taken a step back after the departure of coach John Calipari, and visiting Gonzaga will hope to take advantage Saturday by snapping a four-game losing streak to Memphis as the teams meet for a fifth consecutive season.
Memphis had won 49 straight games in Conference USA play entering this season, and its spotless record extended to its series with the Bulldogs. Last season, the Tigers cruised to a 68-50 win at Gonzaga on Feb. 7.
While each of the Bulldogs’ four recent losses came while Memphis was ranked among the top 15, Gonzaga (18-4) will have a chance to end the skid against an unranked Tigers team.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are in good position to earn a 10th straight West Coast Conference regular-season title despite suffering their first conference loss last Saturday, an 81-77 overtime defeat at San Francisco.
They bounced back with a 76-49 drubbing of Portland on Thursday night, seizing a 20-point halftime lead and riding 20 points from leading scorer Matt Bouldin.
“We challenged them to play as hard as they have played in this building and they did it,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That’s a great win for us. That’s a very, very good Portland team that is playing as well as anyone in our league.”
Gonzaga has had a more difficult time outside of the WCC, losing to Michigan State, Duke and Wake Forest while pulling out two-point overtime wins over Cincinnati and Illinois.
The loss to the Spartans was Gonzaga’s only true road game in non-conference play, but the Bulldogs will try for a better result in Memphis, where the Tigers have as many losses (two) in their last six home games as they had in their previous 81.
Calipari left for Kentucky in the offseason, taking some of his recruits with him and leaving 32-year-old Josh Pastner at the helm.
While their lengthy winning streak in conference play ended last month against UTEP, the Tigers (16-6) have remained competitive. They could be especially confident after Wednesday’s 85-75 win over UAB, which had been tied for first place.
Memphis was buoyed in that game by a career-high 29 points from sophomore swingman Wesley Witherspoon, who was 12 of 14 from the free throw line.
“He was phenomenal. He was absolutely outstanding,” Pastner said of Witherspoon. “I’m so proud of him for the way he played.”
Less surprising were the 25 points and seven assists from leading scorer Elliot Williams, a sophomore who transferred from Duke before the season. Williams ranks second in Conference USA and 27th nationally with 20.0 points per game.
Some of Memphis’ problems have come at the defensive end. The Tigers have allowed at least 70 points in five straight games, and in their six losses, opponents have shot 46.1 percent and attempted an average of 29.8 free throws.
That could be a problem against Gonzaga, which ranks among the top 10 nationally in free throws attempted.
Bouldin has shot 26.9 percent and averaged 6.7 points in three career meetings with Memphis, but he’s gotten plenty of help lately from freshman forward Elias Harris, who has averaged 19.5 points in his last 11 games.
This is the fourth straight season that the teams have squared off during a break from their conference schedules.