After losing to East Carolina (8-12, 2-7), the AAC’s second-worst team, by 38 points Jan. 17, the Bulls looked like a team that might not win another game all year.
In its three games since that loss, however, USF has shown signs of life, losing by just two points to UCF (13-7, 4-4) and defeating Tulane (12-8, 3-5), 80-75. Its lone hiccup in the stretch was a 23-point loss on the road to Houston (16-4, 6-2).
Now, with a single win in conference play, USF will host Memphis on Wednesday night at 8:30 in the Sun Dome. Though it’s still a significant underdog, a replication of its play in the UCF and Tulane games could be enough for USF (8-14, 1-8) to hand Memphis (13-8, 4-4) its third straight loss.
“We played poorly at East Carolina (ECU), no question about it,” USF coach Brian Gregory said. “We’ve responded in the last three games, playing a much better brand of basketball. Much closer to how we need to play to be successful.”
Memphis, which currently sits mid-table in the AAC at sixth place, has dropped its last two conference games by an average of 13.5 points, falling to Tulsa and Cincinnati.
Despite the back-to-back defeats, Tigers guard Jeremiah Martin's scoring production barely dipped, with the junior scoring 20 and 14 points in the losses.
“He’s difficult,” Gregory said of Martin. “Dynamic is the right word. He really is dynamic, because not only can he score the ball, but he creates so many opportunities for his teammates as well. He’s always putting pressure on your defense.
“He finds ways to impact a game. The game they (Memphis) won at Temple, he probably had the biggest basket — a tip-in on an offensive rebound. From your point guard.”
The Bulls' game plan for stopping Martin will likely be to place him under constant pressure by graduate-transfer guard Terrence Samuel, who limited both Tulane and Houston’s top scorers to a total of 12 points in his last two outings.
“I think after that Central Florida game, Terrence has gotten back to understanding how important he is on the defensive side on the ball for us,” Gregory said. “Kind of setting that tone as that guy we have to put on the other team’s best perimeter player.”
Teams completely shutting down Martin is rare, but not impossible. In back-to-back games on New Year's Eve and Jan. 3, Martin scored single-digit points against Cincinnati and UCF. In the other 19 games he’s played, however, Martin has scored at least 10 points, with a season-high 31 scored against Tulane on Jan. 9.
“I’m not sure anybody in our league has stopped him (Martin),” Gregory said. “They’ve contained him. They’ve made it difficult on him. That’s what we have to try to do.”
Wednesday’s meeting will be the first of two games between the Tigers and Bulls in 2018, with the second coming on March 1 in Memphis.
“We still have a lot of games left,” Gregory said. “Half the league season and the postseason after that. There’s still a lot to be done. That’s what’s driving our guys right now. It gets difficult when you don’t see any fruits of your labor. In this world in which we live in, the fruits are wins.”