All roads lead to Tennessee

When the Bulls shake hands with the Houston Cougars before their first-round game in the Conference USA Tournament tonight, it will be a familiar feeling.

The USF men’s basketball team (12-15, 5-11 C-USA) played Houston (18-12, 9-7 C-USA) twice this season, losing both by a combined margin of 30.

This will be USF’s last appearance in the C-USA Tournament, as it is moving to the Big East next season, and will be their first since 2002-03, when they upset DePaul in the first round before falling to Memphis in the quarterfinals.

The Bulls have lost four in a row overall to the Cougars, who forced USF into shooting a combined 39 percent in both games.

But things could be different for the Bulls, who are coming off an upset of then-No. 18 Charlotte, which fell to No. 24 in the ESPN poll.

Meanwhile, Houston has lost two in a row, away at Marquette and home to UAB.

The first clash on Jan. 22 — a 62-50 loss at the Sun Dome — resulted in coach Robert McCullum saying after the game that, in terms of his team’s performance, it was “the lowest point of the season.”

It was USF’s fourth-straight loss and its lowest point total of the season.

And things didn’t get much easier in the second round.

Houston dominated and controlled the Bulls en route to a 68-50 victory in Houston on Feb. 16. USF shot better but committed 22 turnovers and allowed the Cougars 15 offensive rebounds.

Houston guard Andre Owens will need to be held in check if the Bulls hope for a second straight upset.

Owens led his team in scoring both games, playing all but nine minutes. In the first meeting, Owens scored 20, and in the second, he finished with 16.

The Bulls’ big two — Terrence Leather and Brian Swift — both come in hot. Leather had 24 points and 12 rebounds and along with Owens, was named to the C-USA All-Conference Second Team earlier this week. Swift scored 19 in the upset win.

But more importantly, the Bulls seem to have a legit third threat in Marlyn Bryant.

Bryant, a senior guard, has recorded double-doubles in two of the past four games and scored 16 points in USF’s near upset of Louisville on Feb. 12.

But like his teammates, Bryant struggled against the Cougars.

This time, the Bulls are hoping the third chance will be a charm.

The approximate tip-off time is 9:30.