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A fight for first place

First place in the National Division will be on the line when South Florida travels to Memphis to face the Tigers tonight at 8 at the Pyramid.

“(Memphis) is so good,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “They’re big, they’re physical, they’re quick and they’re aggressive. It’s going to be a hell of a challenge.”

The Bulls (12-3, 3-0 in Conference USA) and Tigers (12-3, 3-0 in C-USA) were picked second and first, respectively, in the C-USA Preseason Coaches Poll and join Cincinnati as the only remaining undefeated teams in conference play.

Both teams enter the game on hot streaks. The Bulls have won five of their last six games, including three in a row. USF is coming off a 70-63 win Saturday at DePaul.

The Tigers are winners of seven of their last eight games, with their lone loss during that stretch a 90-73 setback at home against Arkansas Jan. 2. The Tigers began the season ranked in the Top 25, but early back-to-back losses to Iowa and Alabama dropped them from the polls.

Memphis’s offense revolves around Dajuan Wagner, the most heralded freshman in the country. Wagner, son of former Louisville great Milt Wagner, made headlines as a senior at Camden High School in New Jersey by scoring 100 points in a game. He was the recipient of the Naismith Award, given to the top prep player in the country, as well as being named the All-USA Boys Player of the Year by USA Today. And Wagner has lived up to the preseason hype thus far, ranking second (21.9 points per game) in the conference in scoring behind Cincinnati’s Steve Logan.

“(Wagner’s) an NBA guard,” Greenberg said. “He’s 6-foot-2, he’s powerful, he’s explosive and he shoots the ball with range. He’s a tremendous talent.”

But Memphis is by no means a one-trick pony. The Tigers boast a dominating front court that features rebounding machine Kelly Wise, the reigning C-USA Co-Player of the Week. Wise, who shared the award with Marquette’s Odartey Blankson, is coming off a 16-point, 10-rebound game against Tulane that earned the senior forward his 36th career double-double, tops in conference history. For the season, Wise is averaging 13 points, and his 11.6 rebounds per game tops the league.

“Wagner gets the hype, but Wise, (Earl) Barron and (Chris) Massie are the heart and soul (of the Tigers),” Greenberg said. “They are the essence of that team.”

The Bulls enter the game a little nicked up. In addition to B.B. Waldon’s (fractured cheekbone) and Reggie Kohn’s (stress fracture in left leg) preexisting injuries, Marlyn Bryant (sprained wrist, bruised heel) and Greg Brittian (strained rotator cuff) were banged up in the DePaul win. Brittian did not practice Monday, but Greenberg said he expects all four to play tonight.

  • Brandon Wright covers men’s basketball and can be reached at