Coming soon: 18 Memphis-style wars every season

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Sunday’s Big 12 preview was a hoot.

Ok, it wasn’t a Big 12 game, but the intensity of the Houston-Memphis basketball rivalry is what Cougar fans will experience 18 times next season. Even games against Iowa State and West Virginia will feel like entrenched rivalries.

For the last 26 years, the University of Houston has wandered the tundra of the G5 and, save for a short stretch with Memphis football and another with Tulane in baseball, has never had a true in-conference rival.

That is until Memphis hired Penny Hardaway as Cougar Basketball started ascending.

For a generation, UH fans have not had anyone to hate. Genuine, honest, passionate hate. Certainly not Rice or SMU, which have been more like annoying, untalented little brothers. Perhaps it was starting to grow with TCU, the few years the two schools spent in C-USA together. But it never got to the level of hate.

Penny Hardaway changed that equation. Penny’s all-sizzle and no-steak brand of basketball disappears a few times a year, for 40 minutes at a time, when his team takes on the Coogs. His five-star recruits underperform 25+ games a year, but they always play their best when the interlocking UH shows up on the scoreboard.

Cougar fans should appreciate him for that. These Memphis games preview what UH is in store for beginning in December—tough, physical dogfights. But those dogfights will happen twice a week instead of twice a year.

Poor Penny // Photo by Mario Puente

Houston lost two games in the regular season to Memphis last year before avenging them in the AAC Championship game. Kelvin Sampson certainly reminded his team about that over the past few days. After the game, Sampson admitted his team did not play their best, even chuckling at UH’s 17.6% shooting from three-point (3/17).

But he was proud that his team fought and scrapped for 40 minutes, not letting go of the rope as they did against Alabama and Temple. The game plan against the Tigers was to go inside and challenge the longer, more athletic Tigers. Sasser and Shead repeatedly attacked the basket in the first half, and when Memphis switched to the press for much of the second, the inside was open for J’Wan Roberts. In all, 15 of Houston’s 23 buckets were at the rim.

That’s the type of combat the Cougars will invariably face in the Bully 12. Memphis has always been a tough out for the Coogs; their size, physicality, and talent are apparent. And they usually overcome their deficient coaching to play well in this series.

Sunday, when Jarace Walker and Reggie Chaney struggled inside, J’Wan Roberts stepped up. He played like a brute against the frontline of McCadden, Lawson, and Williams. “J’Wan’s a really, really good basketball player,” Kelvin said after the game. The extra work that Kellen Sampson puts in daily with him and Jarace continues to pay dividends for both.

As February wanes and March approaches, this Houston team is trending upward with no obvious ceiling. But a grueling new reality awaits the Cougars after the confetti and hoisting of a trophy at NRG. The Coogs have had glimpses of Big 12 life but never experienced the day-in, day-out grind that awaits them.

It’s going to be a helluva lot of fun.
 

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