If other Conference USA teams want to reach the NCAA tournament, they must pass No. 4 Memphis, the league's dominant team for four years and last season's runner-up for the national championship.

And if defeating one of the nation's premier squads in this week's tournament to earn the automatic NCAA bid, isn't tough enough, the road goes through the FedExForum, the Tigers' home floor, putting the rest of the conference at a distinct disadvantage.

"That's our challenge, to get into position where we can challenge them," East Carolina coach Mack McCarthy said. "In the meantime, they are the kings, and they deserve every break they can get. They've earned them. They are the gold standard."

The tournament starts Wednesday with seeds 5-12 facing off in four games.

The tournament opens with No. 7 seed Marshall (15-16, 7-9) facing 10th-seeded Rice (9-21, 4-12), followed by the sixth-seed UCF (17-13, 7-9) against No. 11 seed Southern Mississippi (14-16, 4-12).

In the evening session, Tulane (13-16, 7-9), the No. 8 seed faces ninth-seed East Carolina (13-16, 5-11), while No. 5 seed Houston (19-10, 10-6) takes on last-place SMU (9-20, 3-13) in the nightcap.

Besides Memphis (28-3, 16-0), the tournament's top seed, second-seeded Tulsa (22-9, 12-4), No. 3 UAB (21-10, 11-5) and UTEP (19-11, 10-6), in the fourth slot, all earned opening-round byes.

The C-USA is expected to get one team in the NCAA tournament Memphis _ unless there is an upset in the league tournament.

The Tigers have the nation's longest winning streak at 22 straight, and have won 58 consecutive C-USA games, including the postseason. They completed their third straight season going through the conference with a 16-0 record.

The dominance has brought some creative thinking from Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik. The second-seeded Golden Hurricane will face the Marshall-Rice winner on Thursday.

Wojcik's team came the closest to beating the Tigers in conference play, losing 55-54 on Jan. 13 at Tulsa on a buzzer-beater by Memphis guard Antonio Anderson.

A month later, Tulsa came to Memphis and lost 63-37.

Wojcik said the difference for visiting teams may have to do with the FedExForum being an NBA arena. The Tigers share the building with the Memphis Grizzlies.

"I think that you've got to get high percentage shots," the Tulsa coach said. "I think it's a difficult place to shoot the basketball at times to really get adjusted to it because of the tension on the rims."

Memphis coach John Calipari said he doesn't think it is about the rims, the depth of the shooting background or playing at home.

"Out advantage is our players," Calipari said. "We just have really good players. That's our advantage, and they play really hard, and they're really long. I like that advantage more that the building we're in."

One thing other C-USA coaches dislike even more than chasing Memphis every year is the national perception of the league.

With the Tigers' winning streak, the rest of the teams don't get the kind of respect that comes in the ACC, SEC or Big East.

Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy marvels at the streak, noting the level of play from other teams, and the fact that when Memphis visits C-USA opponents, it is the biggest game of the year.

The streak may give the perception that it is a one-team, one-invite league, but he said that is not reality.

Eustachy said if Anderson doesn't hit the shot at Tulsa, that becomes a quality win for the Golden Hurricane. He thinks UAB and UTEP also should get consideration, even if they don't win the tournament.

"There's a lot deserving (of an invitation)," Eustachy said. "Will we? Probably not."

Asked who had the best chance to beat the Tigers in the tournament, Eustachy said that his Golden Eagles would be the one poised for the upset.

"I think we've got the best chance to beat them," Eustachy said laughing before adding, "Next year. Nobody is going to beat Memphis."

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