Sandwich Game?

At 2-1 in Big East play, Notre Dame can't avoid a slip-up vs. South Florida tonight at the Purcell Pavilion.

Last Saturday offered a major road upset, one that, at least according to the Vegas odds makers, was the biggest for the Notre Dame program in 13 seasons. This coming Saturday brings defending national champion Connecticut to South Bend.

In between the two marquee matchups is a Tuesday visit from South Florida. No student-body, no ESPN audience, and no margin for error for Mike Brey's suddenly breathing Irish.

The Bulls are likewise 2-1 in the Big East with consecutive victories vs. Rutgers and Villanova and a close loss to Connecticut in late December to open conference play.

Familiar names abound for diehard Irish followers as Ron Anderson, Jawanza Poland, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, and Augustus Gilchrist have all hit upperclassmen status. There might not be a star in the bunch, but along with Shawn Noriega, South Florida has enough firepower and grit to record a mild upset over Notre Dame given a few breaks.

But to be blunt, this isn't a game Notre Dame can afford to lose. Their 28-game home winning streak defines them – in head coach Mike Brey's words, "they have ownership of it" especially the likes of Jack Cooley and Eric Atkins who both contributed heavily to the undefeated home slate last winter.

If the Irish are to absorb a home loss or two this year, it must be vs. the likes of Syracuse, UConn, or Marquette – not the school that Skip Holtz brought to South Bend for one of its few wins of the fall.

Below is a look at Notre Dame's evolving rotation heading into tonight's contest:

Point Guard Eric Atkins

Has connected on 33 of 64 field goal attempts on the Joyce Center floor this season – this despite an 0-8 effort vs. Dartmouth in mid-December…His 15-point effort vs. Louisville might have been the most impressive effort of his 50-plus game career, if only for the clutch nature in which he finished off the major upset, scoring the team's final six points and hitting the tying three-pointer in regulation…Atkins, who played all 50 minutes vs. Louisville Saturday, is two years away from all-league status: for now, he's simply a tremendous home court point guard, one that finds his way to the charity stripe early and often with a little home cooking.

Shooting Guard Jerian Grant

He can shoot, he's fearless to the hole, and his best basketball is at least two years away, but the redshirt-freshman has proven one truth in his first season of action: Grant possesses the "clutch gene" that eludes most collegiate athletes, especially those thrown fresh into the fray…Just 14 of 37 from the field in three Big East games but there's little doubt Grant's step-back three-pointer will find the bottom of the net when it matters…Drives with abandon, just not enough for the offensively-starved Irish…Could use a refresher course in defensive intensity, at least during his sleepy first halves…Good with the basketball, but like a young Chris Quinn before him, the team could use a few more turnovers as the result of forays to the hole as its half-court offense lacks a penetrating presence without him.

Forward Alex Dragicevich

Will find a few 0-fer efforts reminiscent of Saturday, but has already helped deliver a major conference victory with his 22-point outing vs. Pittsburgh in the conference opener…Like the bulk of the roster, will fair far better at home this season than outside the friendly confines of the Purcell Pavilion, but the sophomore swingman has begun to find his role as an occasional scorer and big guard in the team's necessary 2-3 zone that's sporadically employed throughout league games…Has missed his last 9 three-point shots after burying 14 of 34 previously….Miscast as a backup point guard earlier this season.

Forward Scott Martin

Played his best game of the season during an 0-7 three-point shooting effort on Saturday vs. Louisville – an opinion that speaks volumes regarding his senior year but also to the grit, determination, and basketball intelligence he showcased vs. the Cardinals in an unlikely victory…Martin's drawn charge at the rim at the regulation buzzer afforded the Irish a chance at victory 10 game minutes later…Has a beautiful, compact, left-handed stroke but has somehow missed his last 18 three-point shots (I'd prefer not to know if that's a modern-era Irish record)…Has collected 38 boards in his last five games, but Notre Dame won't reach the NCAA Tournament if he can't hit a few point-blank jump shots over the next two months.

Center Jack Cooley

Would be the best backup center in the Big East, alas…Cooley has developed into a legit post player: strong at the rim, calm at the line, a solid low-block defender and rebounder on both ends – now he could use some help…Was the key figure in the opening 20 minutes vs. Louisville and led the team at game's end with 18 points…Will screen, bang, and finish plays with power if not grace…A far better athlete than credited early in his career…Has ripped down 35 boards in three Big East games this season…The Irish won't win a road game in which he finds foul trouble or inconsistency this season...Few players fire up the home crowd more than the Glen Ellyn native.

Forward Joey Brooks

Has found his niche as a defensive stopper…1 for 3 nights will be the norm in league play though the "1" on Saturday was a crucial wing three-pointer in the second half comeback vs. the Cardinals…Has a penchant for offensive and loose ball fouls which will knock him out of more than a few matchups vs. quality opponents this season…Is light years more valuable to the 2011-12 squad than in season's past…Can score at home, but its rarely fluid and free throws remain a 50/50 proposition....Brooks will see sporadic minutes but fans will trace at least two more home wins to his effort as a defender and hustling player vs. the best the league has to offer.

Guard Pat Connaughton

Has played far fewer(34 total minutes in three games) during Big East action than non-conference play…Should shine when his confidence matches his athleticism and sense for the game, though he won't be the best athlete on the floor again until next November…Has a sweet stroke for a prospect best known for his ability to get to the rim…Needs more minutes to make an impact on the weak side glass…The true freshman's presence is essential vs. likes of Syracuse and Connecticut who can overwhelm Dragicevich and Brooks with their length and leaping ability…Hasn't hit double figures since scoring 11 at Gonzaga in late November.

Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer

Knight hit 5 of 9 shots vs. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati before failing to appear vs. the Cardinals in Saturday's upset…Possesses nice touch from 10-15 feet and has more court sense than the aggressive Broghammer, who brings aggression to the position in limited action…Broghammer's balky knees limit his playing time but hard screens, defensive boards, and all-out effort bring value to the rotation…Neither has distinguished himself enough to take meaningful minutes away from the developing Cooley…Look for Knight to score 4 to 6 points in most of the eight remaining home games.

Prediction: Notre Dame 68 South Florida 61


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