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Despite the dissention and drama within the Memphis basketball team through its first 13, the Tigers find themselves in a favorable position.
The race for the program's first regular-season AAC title in history is just getting started, and Memphis (8-5, 2-1 AAC) has a shot at making an early move. Penny Hardaway's team, which will host Cincinnati (11-4, 1-1) on Sunday (2:30 p.m., ABC) at FedExForum, has won three of its last four games. That includes back-to-back victories over Wichita State and Tulsa, and the Tigers only trail Houston (13-2, 2-0) and East Carolina (10-3, 1-0) in the league standings.
Following Memphis' 67-64 win over Tulsa on Tuesday, Hardaway was frustrated. When asked about his mood and the upcoming game against Cincinnati, he was brief in response.
"We're happy that we won and ready to get to the next game," he said.
But, leading up to the game against the Golden Hurricane, Hardaway said he was pleased by the team's progress in recent weeks.
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“Obviously, I feel like if we’re at full strength, we beat Tulane with (our) frontcourt,” he said. “But, playing well against Alabama and Wichita State, I feel really good that the guys are really locked in. They’re really listening and they want to win out.”
Here's what else you need to know for Sunday's game.
The walking wounded
Whether the Tigers are full strength Sunday is anybody's guess – including Hardaway's.
On Friday, Hardaway said there's a growing list of game-time decisions.
Center Jalen Duren, who sat out the win over Tulsa with a bothersome hip, is one. Forward DeAndre Williams came out of Tuesday’s game late in the second half with a back injury and did not return. Junior guards Landers Nolley II (neck) and Jayden Hardaway (right leg) also made the list. Those four players are in addition to guard Alex Lomax (ankle) and forward Chandler Lawson (ankle), both of whom have already been ruled out for Sunday’s game. It will be Lomax’s third game in a row sitting out and Lawson’s ninth.
On the flip side, wing Emoni Bates (finger infection) could be on the verge of making his return. He has not played since the Tigers’ Dec. 14 win over Alabama.
“Emoni is, he practiced yesterday, so we’ll see,” said Hardaway. "We're hoping to have everyone. But you just don't know until Sunday morning, just to see how they feel."
Cincinnati scouting report
The Bearcats have gotten to this point largely because of their defense, which ranks 38th in adjusted efficiency and fifth in the country in effective field goal percentage. They have allowed 60 points or fewer in six of their last nine games.
But things have been evening out lately, and it's showing up in the results. Cincinnati is 3-2 in its last five games against Division I opponents. In a loss to Xavier (20th in the NCAA's NET rankings), the Bearcats gave up 83 points and the Musketeers shot better than 46% from the field – well above the 36.9% field goal percentage opponents have mustered this season. In a home loss to Tulane, the Green Wave hit on 39% of its shots but connected on 47% from 3-point range. Cincinnati righted the ship in a win over SMU on Thursday, holding the Mustangs to 30.8% from the field, 29.6% from three.
Memphis has shot 52% or better from the field in two of its last four games and 35% or better from three in three of its last five games.
The Cincinnati offense most often revolves around guards David DeJulius (12.8) and Jeremiah Davenport (12.5 ppg), both of whom help take care of the ball at an impressive rate – the team's 14.7 turnover percentage is 17th in the nation. But the Bearcats do the bulk of their damage inside the 3-point line, as they are among the worst long-range shooting teams in the country (28.9%, 322nd). Wes Miller's team rebounds a high percentage of its misses (33.9, 39th) and blocks 7.6% of its opponents' shots (78th in Division I). Six Cincinnati players have at least 10 blocks this season.
Memphis 68, Cincinnati 62: The Tigers have an early chance to establish themselves as an upper-echelon AAC team. And they will take advantage of the opportunity.
Reach sports writer Jason Munz at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @munzly.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis basketball vs. Cincinnati: Scouting report and score prediction