Road Leery

With a 1-1 mark in conference play, Luke Harangody and his Irish teammates face a critical swing game tonight at South Florida.

Two Big East squad's with noticeably short benches will square off tonight as the 12-3 Irish (1-1 in Big East play) take the court in Tampa vs. the 10-4 (0-1) South Florida Bulls.

The matchup represents a clash of style and method, with the up-tempo visitors averaging 83.5 points per game (14th nationally) and the host Bulls scoring a tick under 68 points per contest (219th of 331 Division-I teams).

Below is a closer look at tonight's matchup, with tip-off sett for 7 PM (ET) on ESPNU.

At a Glance

Notre Dame: 12-3
  • Losses: Northwestern (Chicago Classic), Loyola Marymount, at Connecticut
  • Best Win: UCLA (5-7) or Providence (8-5)
  • Loss for the Selection Committee's Consideration: home vs. LMU (7-7)

South Florida: 10-3

  • Losses: South Carolina (neutral); Central Michigan; at Louisville
  • Best win: Virginia in mid-November
  • Loss for the Selection Committee's Consideration: Likely N/A, but the home loss to CMU won't help should the Bulls somehow finish above .500 in league play.

Meet the Bulls

Former Kent State and Arkansas head man Stan Heath (31-44 in third season in Tampa) has South Florida off to its best start since the early 90s. The 10-3 Bulls have shown drastic offensive improvement over last season's edition, hitting at a six percent better clip from the field and 10 percent effort from the charity stripe.

Heath's Bulls have lost two guards to transfer over the Holidays: seldom-used freshman guard Jordan Dumars (son of NBA Hall of Famer, Joe) and backup freshman point guard Justin Leemow, who had struggled as a shooter through 12 games but had earned over 19 minutes per contest prior to his departure.)

Additionally, much-improved sophomore center Augustus Gilchrist has missed the last six contests due to a severe ankle injury; the result is short bench for the Bulls tonight with just eight remaining players garnering court time to date.

Versatile guard Dominique Jones continues to stuff the stat sheet in his third season as a starter. The junior has averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.2 steals, and has hit over 38 percent of his shots from long-range and 48 percent overall through the Bulls first 13 contests. Jones represents a tough defensive matchup for the smaller Irish guard tandem of Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough and the powerful 6'5" Bull produced 34 points, 14 boards, and 8 assists in two career matchups with the Irish. Jones, however, has struggled from the field in those matchups, hitting just 15 of 43 shots including a staggering 1-15 effort from beyond the arc.

Aside from the old adage of a scorer "being due" to breakout, another potentially bad development for his assigned defender(s) tonight is Jones' performance last week vs. Louisville: a season-low five points in the Bulls conference-opening loss in Freedom Hall.

The Bulls will field just two healthy big men for the contest, junior college-transfer forward Jarrid Famous and freshman frontcourt partner Toarlyn Fitzpatrick. The 6'11" 240-pound Famous was brought in to augment the effort of August Gilchrist on the boards this season and the newcomer has responded of late, with five double-digit rebound efforts this season (a 7.6 average) and three double-doubles in his last four contests, including 12 points and 10 boards in 33 minutes at Louisville last Wednesday.

The Bulls will occasionally isolate Famous in the post to see if he can score over the smaller Irish frontcourt tandem of Luke Harangody and Tyrone Nash and the Irish must contain his length and aggression on the boards – an area in which they've historically struggled, especially outside of South Bend.

Fitzpatrick, a 6'8" 230-pound true freshman, replaced Gilchrist in the starting lineup and has since averaged six points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes per contest. He's struggling from the field, hitting just 13 of 36 attempts since moving into an extended role. As with Famous, the Irish frontcourt will need to be wary of the newcomer on the offensive glass.

Senior point guard Chris Howard is an improved defender and ball-handler (his 2.16 assist-to-turnover ratio includes a strong 37 vs. 13 effort over his last eight contests) and ranks second on the squad at 34 minutes per game. Don't expect Howard or Jones to receive more than a brief trip to the bench if the game is in doubt tonight in Tampa.

At 6'3" 200 pounds, Howard has averaged a shade under 10 points per contest to go with 4.2 assists and 3.3 boards but has struggled of late, hitting 14 of last 36 shots from the floor. He and Jones have enough strength to bother Hansbrough and Jackson in physical one-on-one matchups.

Former Georgia transfer Mike Mercer serves as a small forward on the undersized Bulls. He continues to struggle with his shot selection, connecting on a horrid 26 percent from beyond the arc in 30 attempts while consistently finding the range inside the line, knocking down 29 of 50 on the season.

6'6" freshman swing man Mike Burwell will see time off the bench as will senior guard Ryan Kardok (22 minutes per game last four contests) and freshman backcourt mate Shaun Noriega. Kardok has proven he can knock down the open shot from long-range.

The Last Time

Two games removed from a crippling seven-game losing skid, Notre Dame handled South Florida for its second straight victory, 67-57 at the Joyce Center last February. Kyle McAlarney and Luke Harangody paced the Irish with 19 points (Harangody added 11 boards) and Ryan Ayers added 12 points and solid defense against Bulls star Dominique Jones (14 points on 6-19 shooting, plus 9 boards and 7 assists) for most of the contest.

Stats and Streaks

  • After Saturday's loss at Connecticut, Notre Dame has now dropped 8 of its last 10 Big East road tilts after posting a 5-4 road mark en route to a 14-4 conference record in 2008. The Irish were outrebounded in each of those eight defeats (and won the battle of the boards in both wins, at DePaul and at Providence last season).
  • The winning team in the series has produced a final point total in the 60s in four of the last five contests between the squads. Notre Dame holds a 4-1 overall advantage against South Florida (all games played since 2006) with its only loss a 69-63 decision in Tampa in February 2007.
  • Irish head coach Mike Brey has earned 299 career victories (Delaware and Notre Dame) entering tonight's contest.
  • The Irish have been installed as a two-point favorite for tonight's contest.

Rankings and Records

Senior point guard Tory Jackson ranks second nationally with a sterling 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Backcourt running mate Ben Hansbrough ranks fifth in the same category and has knocked down 49.2 percent of his shots from 3-point range (though he needs one more attempt to meet the minimum requirements).

Firmly entrenched among the nation's leaders from beyond the arc is redshirt-junior forward Tim Abromaitis, who at 50.6 percent currently ranks sixth in the nation and at 6'8" is the tallest player listed among the country's top 50 qualifiers.

Harangody is currently fourth in the country with 24.3 points per game and ranks 27th at 10.1 rebounds per contest. With 2,187 career points, the senior needs nine points to pass Chris Thomas (2001-05) for third-place on the program's career scoring list.

The Irish are No. 2 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio; No. 7 in team 3-point field goal percentage and No. 10 in terms of overall field goal percentage through Sunday's NCAA statistics.

Prediction

Rebounds, tempo, and toughness: three ingredients necessary for the Irish to notch their first road victory of the season and just the third in conference play dating back to December 31, 2008.

Tonight's two-point Vegas line suggests that an item from our pre-season schedule forecast could be in play in Tampa:

The Bulls are an improved squad from last season and have traditionally garnered a big-name pelt at home (#6 Marquette last year; Syracuse in '08; #19 ND in '07; Georgetown in '06) regardless of the home team's talent level.

Notre Dame is the better team; the veteran team; and for perhaps its only matchup this season, the deeper squad. There's no such animal as a must-win conference game in early January, but a loss to the short-handed Bulls would likely set the Irish on a three-month death march to the Not Invited Tournament this March.

If the visitors can earn on a draw on the glass and keep Dominique Jones out of their lane, Mike Brey and his squad should return to snowy South Bend with a solid 2-1 conference start and three days to prepare for Saturday's matchup with No. 8 West Virginia at the Purcell Pavilion.

It won't be easy vs. the grinding style of the Bulls, but look for the Irish to hold off the home team, 71-64 behind another 30-10 effort from senior Luke Harangody.


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