Do-or-die at the Dome

It doesn’t get much bigger than this for the South Florida basketball team.

With first place in the National Division of Conference USA still within reach, the Bulls face Memphis tonight at 9:30 in the Sun Dome in the most must win of must-win games.

“Obviously this is a game we have to have,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “At this point we have to win as many games as we can.”

The Bulls can still claim the top spot in the National Division if a few scenarios play out in their favor. USF must beat Memphis tonight – something it hasn’t done in the past six tries against the Tigers – and win out against UAB, Houston and Southern Miss. The Bulls then need the Tigers to lose to either Cincinnati or DePaul. The division champion will receive one of four first-round byes at the C-USA Tournament March 6-9.

A win against the Tigers would also give the Bulls something they haven’t achieved this season – a nationally televised victory. USF is 0-3 this year on ESPN, a monkey Greenberg and his players sorely need to get off their backs.

“Memphis is a very, very talented team,” Greenberg said. “We’re going to have to play 40 minutes. Memphis is a desperate team right now.”

And that desperation stems from the Tigers being a team on the verge of a South Florida-like late-season collapse. Once thought to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament after starting the conference schedule with 10 straight wins, Memphis now finds itself scrambling to maintain the top spot in its division after three consecutive losses and is no longer a sure bet for the Big Dance.

“You take away a player who is the focal point and it affects the team,” Greenberg said.

And that player is preseason All-C-USA First Team Center Kelly Wise, who’s strained right knee has turned out to be a pain in Tigers coach John Calipari’s backside. During Memphis’ three-game skid Wise, C-USA’s career leader in double-doubles with 41, didn’t play against UAB or Houston and contributed sparingly against Charlotte. It is unclear whether Wise, who scored 10 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the Tigers’ 81-62 win against USF Jan. 15, will play tonight, but Greenberg said the Bulls’ focus must be who’s on the court, rather than who isn’t.

“(Wise’s absence) affects the team,” he said. “But that doesn’t affect the talent of (Antonio) Burks, the explosion of (Dajuan) Wagner and the grittiness of (Chris) Massie.”

With big-names like Wise and Wagner receiving the majority of attention, the ultra-quick Burks exposed USF’s defense in the first meeting for a career-high 16 points to go along with eight assists and only two turnovers. Burks especially hurt the Bulls in transition, and the Tigers were afforded ample opportunity – USF shot 29 percent from the floor.

“We have to defend and take away the easy transition baskets,” Greenberg said.

Greg Brittian did a good job guarding Wagner (4-of-17 shooting), C-USA’s second-leading scorer at 21.4 points per game, in the first matchup, but it is unlikely he will draw that assignment again tonight. Brittian has been hampered by what Greenberg suspected since the junior transfer injured his right foot against Louisville Feb. 1 – a stress fracture. Brittian’s foot has been placed in a cast similar to Reggie Kohn’s (stress fracture in left leg) and will not practice. Greenberg said Brittian will play against the Tigers, but center Gerrick Morris (sprained right ankle) will be a game-time decision.

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