Notre Dame may not have much to play for in its regular-season finale, except for gaining a measure of revenge for last season’s trip to South Florida.
The No. 19 Fighting Irish look to gain some momentum for next week’s Big East tournament when they visit the lowly Bulls on Saturday.
Notre Dame (23-6, 13-4) has already clinched one of the four first-round byes for the conference tournament. If the Irish beat South Florida (12-18, 3-14), they’ll finish in a tie for second place along with the loser of Saturday’s game between No. 11 Georgetown and No. 12 Louisville which will decide the regular-season title.
“Now is the most fun part of the season for us,” Notre Dame forward Rob Kurz said. “It’s what we work for all year. So in order to keep playing we have to be playing our best basketball.”
South Florida, meanwhile, is playing its final game after failing to qualify for the conference tournament for the third straight season since joining the Big East. The Bulls are 7-42 all-time in Big East games.
One of those victories, however, came when they pulled off a 69-63 upset of the then-No. 21 Irish in the teams’ last meeting on Feb. 3, 2007. Notre Dame shot just 37.5 percent (24-of-64) and had trouble handling South Florida’s McHugh Mattis, who had 23 points and 16 rebounds.
There have been significant changes for both teams since last season. Mattis graduated and Stan Heath was hired as coach for the Bulls, while Luke Harangody - who was Notre Dame’s fourth-leading scorer as a freshman in 2006-07 - has emerged as one of the best players in the Big East.
Harangody leads the conference in scoring with 21.0 points per game, and had another solid outing in a 68-55 win over St. John’s on Wednesday. He scored 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting as Notre Dame completed a 17-0 home slate.
While the Irish are unbeaten at home, Harangody has actually performed better in Big East road games. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.4 points on over 52 percent shooting on the road in the Big East while averaging 22.6 points on just under 46 percent shooting in South Bend in conference play.
Harangody’s inside presence is complemented by the two best 3-point shooters in the Big East in Ryan Ayers (47.2 percent) and Kyle McAlarney (45.1). Ayers logged seven minutes in last season’s trip to South Florida and McAlarney did not play due to suspension.
Although the Bulls are wrapping up the season, Dominique Jones gives them hope for the future. Jones is averaging a team-high 17.0 points to rank second among Big East freshmen and was named conference rookie of the week Monday.
Jones scored 29 points, but didn’t receive much help in a 72-59 loss at Villanova on Wednesday. No other player reached double figures for the Bulls, who were trying to win two straight Big East games for the first time after a 54-52 victory at Rutgers last Saturday.
“It’s disappointing because you want to build off a road win like that,” Heath said. “I didn’t think we did it. It was typical of teams that have a little success and then let their guard down.”