The Commercial Appeal

How Memphis, Houston feel about the rivalry possibly ending

- Jason Munz

Kendric Davis was in his own backyard the last time Houston faced the Memphis basketball team at Fedexforum.

Literally. Last March, the Tigers star — then an SMU Mustang — was preparing to throw a backyard party for his young son but tuned in to CBS to watch the fireworks between his hometown Cougars and, unbeknowns­t to him at the time, his future home.

“The energy (at Fedexforum) was just crazy,” Davis said this week. “I was like, ‘Man, it’s rockin’ in there. It’s no way Houston coming out of there with a win.’ It looked like it was over before it started.”

Memphis won that game, 75-61. A week later, the team found out it was going back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly a decade. Davis and the rest of the Tigers are hoping for a similar atmosphere and a similar outcome when they host No. 1 Houston on Sunday (11 a.m., CBS). It will be the first time Memphis has faced the top-ranked team in the country inside Fedexforum, which opened in 2004.

While Sunday’s game has a lot riding on it – the Tigers (23-7, 13-4 AAC) could remove whatever doubt there may be about their NCAA Tournament prospects, improve their March Madness seeding in the process and score their first-ever victory over a team ranked No. 1 in the nation — it also marks the last time Memphis and Houston will face one another in the regular season as members of the same conference.

The Cougars (28-2, 16-1), along with Cincinnati and UCF, is leaving the AAC for the Big 12 this summer. In doing so, they could be squashing an intra-conference rivalry that stretches back more than a quarter-century and is just starting to get good. Houston and Memphis became members of Conference USA prior to the 1996-97 season and moved to the AAC together ahead of the 2013-14 season. The programs have battled once, twice or three times a year since Bill Clinton took office for the second time. The Tigers are 33-22 all-time versus the Cougars, which includes eight wins in their past 10 meetings at Fedexforum. The series has picked up some serious steam in recent years. As Houston has become a perennial NCAA Tournament team under Kelvin Sampson and Hardaway has put Memphis back on the map after a string of down years, the last few meetings have been hotly contested affairs.

“It’s one of those games — every time we play Houston, it’s a knockdown, drag-out battle,” said Hardaway. “Especially over the last three years.”

Apart from the directions of each program, what else has been a driving force behind making the matchup so highly anticipate­d for both sides? From Houston’s perspectiv­e, it’s all about intensity.

“They always put up a fight against us,” said Houston redshirt junior J’wan Roberts.

“I think a lot of teams in this league play hard, but they match us intensity wise,” said Cougars senior Reggie Chaney, who is in his third season at Houston. “I think that’s why it’s such a big rivalry. They get up for us. I can remember every single time we’ve played them since I’ve been here. Every single one has been a dogfight.”

Even though Sunday’s tip-off is still more than 48 hours away and they could still face off again at next week’s AAC Tournament in Fort Worth, both sides are already on record advocating for the rivalry’s continuati­on.

“I think we make each other better,” said Hardaway, who added he anticipate­s discussion­s about starting a nonconfere­nce series with Houston would begin this offseason.

Houston Chronicle reporter Joseph Duarte contribute­d to this report.

Reach sports writer Jason Munz at jason.munz@commercial­ or on Twitter @munzly.

 ?? MARIA LYSAKER/USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Memphis forward Deandre Williams drives to the basket around Houston guard Tramon Mark during the first half on Feb. 19 at Fertitta Center in Houston.
MARIA LYSAKER/USA TODAY SPORTS Memphis forward Deandre Williams drives to the basket around Houston guard Tramon Mark during the first half on Feb. 19 at Fertitta Center in Houston.

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