BUBBLE WATCH: Memphis gets in shape at the right time

The blow to Penny Hardaway early in the season was that he could recruit talent from Memphis, but not win with it.

The Tigers seem to be getting into shape – finally.

Shaking off nasty early-season losses, Memphis put themselves in the NCAA Tournament bubble with a landmark win over No. 6 Houston on Saturday. The Tigers beat Tulane earlier in the week and won five in a row as all of those talented young players started to find their way.

“We came in locked in and focused all week,” Hardaway said. “I was trying to keep the guys focused on Tulane, but I could tell they couldn’t wait to get to this game because Houston has been the standard in our league.”

Hardaway earned some of the best recruiting classes in the nation during his four seasons at Memphis, but has yet to turn all that talent into consistent results. Memphis missed the NCAA Tournament in each of Hardaway’s first three seasons despite winning at least 20 games in each.

The Tigers entered this season with plenty of hype, ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 preseason and with a roster that included the nation’s top recruiting class.

Memphis won its first five games, including a win over Virginia Tech, before a five-game, six-game losing streak. Then the Tigers lost three straight last month, digging a deeper hole as injuries mounted.

Things have started to change over the past three weeks. Memphis (14-8, 8-4 American Athletic Conference) played more consistently and picked up a huge win in Quadrant 1, beating Houston 69-59 to end the Cougars’ 37-game home winning streak.

There’s still work to be done, but the Tigers have gotten themselves into the NCAA Tournament conversation.

RAPID INCREASE

Rutgers (15-9, 9-5 Big Ten). An overtime loss to Northwestern hurt the Scarlet Knights’ NCAA Tournament chances, but three straight wins over ranked opponents was huge.

North Carolina (18-7, 10-4 Atlantic Coast Conference). The Tar Heels were blown out by rival Duke but won six of seven, including a blowout from Florida State. Avoid big slip-ups and they could end up in range in Hubert Davis’ first season as coach.

Tennessee (18-6, 9-3 Southeastern Conference). The Vols rebounded well from a blowout loss to No. 5 Kentucky with seven straight SEC wins. Tennessee gets another chance against the Wildcats on Tuesday.

SMU (18-5, 9-2 American Athletic Conference). The Mustangs have recovered from a few shaky losses early in the season to win seven of their last eight games. Knocking down No. 6 Houston was huge.

HOPES THAT GET RIDED

Oregon (16-7, 9-3 Pac-12). The Ducks generally improve as the season progresses under coach Dana Altman. That seemed to be the case when Oregon posted 10 wins in 11 games, but a lackluster 78-64 loss to California on Saturday may have put it back on the edge of the bubble.

Michigan (13-10, 7-6 Big Ten). A victory over then-No. 2 Purdue was a huge boost. The Wolverines followed that up with a loss to No. 16 Ohio State. A team that was once No. 4 in the nation, Michigan might need a strong end to the season to break into the 68 field.

Iowa State (16-.9 3-9 Big 12). Once 12-0, the Cyclones are now last in the Big 12 and on a four-game losing streak after an overtime loss to Kansas State. They need to spin it fast to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament.

Utah State (15-11, 6-7 Mountain West). The Aggies have a few shaky losses on their resume and are in the middle of the pack in the West Mountain. There are still chances to boost their resumes with road games against San Diego State and Boise State, as well as a home game against Colorado State.

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