Though banged up, USF could take over first place with a little revenge against Memphis.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001
The race for the Conference USA National Division title is going down to the wire, and South Florida is among the finalists.
Given the Bulls' tumultuous season, that's an accomplishment.
"If somebody had told me in September we'd be in first place with (three) games left, I'd feel pretty good," coach Seth Greenberg said.
After victories over Houston and UAB last week, a much bigger challenge awaits.
USF (17-9, 9-4) plays Memphis (15-11, 9-4) at 9:30 tonight at the Pyramid in Memphis, Tenn. At stake is sole possession of first place in the conference. Memphis handed USF its only home loss of the season Feb. 7, hitting the century mark in scoring. A loss might destroy the Bulls' slim chance of advancing to the NCAA Tournament without winning the conference tournament outright in two weeks.
Yet, that's not something Greenberg has focused on.
"He doesn't need to talk to us about it," senior Cedric Smith said. "It's self-explanatory. We keep winning, we put ourselves in a position to do what we've worked to do all year, and that's go to the NCAA Tournament. Basically we just have to take it one game at a time. We don't want to look ahead two games, we just want to win this upcoming game and let everything else fall into place."
USF is coming off a road win at UAB on Wednesday night in which every player but one scored.
"I think we've made strides in that area (improvement) in the last two games," Greenberg said. "We've gotten tougher and we're defending with a passion again. We're more purposeful. I'd say we're improving."
One week ago, Memphis held a two-game lead in the conference race, but losses to Cincinnati and Charlotte put the Tigers back in the thick of things with USF and Southern Mississippi. Memphis played three games in five days but has been idle since Monday night's win over UAB.
Memphis coach John Calipari said the team's two losses before UAB showed the Tigers must learn how to put opponents away.
"They've got to learn that every possession does matter, even if it's in the first half," Calipari said. "We make runs, we don't put people away. That's the issue with our team. We don't have the killer instinct yet."
What Memphis has is junior forward Kelly Wise, the only player in C-USA averaging a double double (15.2 ppg, 10.7 rebounds). Wise scored 24 in the Feb. 7 game.
"My mind-set is we have to handle their trap, rebound the basketball and we have to limit Wise," Greenberg said. "That's our main focus."
Tonight's game, the players say, is their only concern. Not Cincinnati on Thursday, or the season finale Saturday. Just Memphis.
"We realize what position we're in," said senior Artha Reeves, who returned to the court last week after surgery to remove cartilage from his knee. "We can't just dwell on the fact we're tied for first. We've still got to compete. We've got to prove that we earned the right to be in first place. A lot of people are doubting us right now because we are a little bruised up. But we're still going to fight, we're not going to quit. It's not over. We're still here. We've got (three) more games left and we're going to give it our all and go all out."