By DAN BURCH
STATS Writer, Hendersonville (NC) News
Memphis is rounding into form, just in time for the bulk of its conference schedule.
The 20th-ranked Tigers (11-3, 1-0) look to win their fourth straight when they visit Houston (5-7, 0-0) on Thursday night in their Conference USA road opener.
Memphis has hit its stride in the last three games, averaging 87 points and winning by an average of 33 points. The Tigers shot 59.3 percent in an 88-55 win over Cincinnati last Thursday and are putting to good use all the extra emphasis coach John Calipari is placing on practice.
``What happened in practice carried over which is the most important thing,'' Calipari said. ``What I put on the board was: 'Perfect practice makes perfect.' What we had done practicing defensively was what you saw. That may have been the best defensive performance, where we covered for each other, since I've been here.''
Senior Jeremy Hunt matched his career high with 24 points and was named C-USA player of the week after going 7-for-8 from the field, including 6-of-7 from behind the 3-point line, against the Bearcats.
Hunt and Willie Kemp, who scored 21 points, were a combined 12-for-16 on 3-point attempts.
``(Hunt) knew because of how he practiced that he was making shots,'' Calipari said. ``Every time it left his hand, everybody in the building thought it was down. He's (practiced) that way all week.''
The Tigers opened conference play with a 78-59 win over Marshall on Dec. 4. Memphis went 13-1 in Conference USA last season, winning the regular season and tournament titles.
The Tigers were 10-1 overall on the road in 2005-06 and have won two straight conference road openers, but they're 0-2 away from home this season, with losses to Tennessee and then-No. 9 Arizona. Memphis plays three of its next four on the road.
Houston is hoping its conference opener will help it snap out of a long slump. The Cougars have lost four straight since beating Charlotte 68-46 on Dec. 21, and they've dropped six of seven overall.
Five of those losses were by at least 10 points before Houston was beaten 77-70 by Kentucky on Jan. 3 in its most recent contest.
The Cougars held Kentucky to 39 percent shooting and allowed the Wildcats to go only 8-of-30 from behind the 3-point line, but Houston was doomed by its own poor shooting. The Cougars finished at 36 percent for the game and are shooting 38.7 percent this season, the lowest figure in the conference and among the worst percentages in the nation.
``We were right there (at the end),'' Houston guard Robert McKiver said. ``We've got to stay as a family. We have to keep working hard.
``We've got to stay positive. We've got to go back to the drawing board and keep working on the mistakes we made in the game.''
Houston went 9-5 in C-USA play last season for its best winning percentage (56.0) since joining the conference in 1996-97.
Memphis won both matchups between the teams in 2005-06 and has taken nine of the last 12 against Houston. The Tigers lead the series 15-10.