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Men’s Basketball: Crunch time

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The last time Notre Dame received this long a break in Big East play, it returned to lose five straight games. But the team stayed alive for postseason eligibility by beating Rutgers Feb. 8.

The Irish (11-10, 2-8 Big East) have had a week off leading up to tonight’s 7:30 p.m. tipoff with South Florida (6-17, 0-10) at the Joyce Center. Entering the season’s final stretch, they know repeating such a losing streak would leave them watching the Big East tournament from their home televisions in mid-March.

“Everybody wants the opportunity, no matter what you do in the regular season, to get to your league tournament,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said at a press conference in the Joyce Center Monday. “But we knew the rules [of qualification]. We knew the ground rules before we started this thing, so you deal with it.”

Notre Dame’s only two conference wins have come just before schedule lulls. The Irish beat Providence 92-77 on Jan. 14 for their first conference win, moving to 1-3 at the time. But after six days of rest, they lost consecutive games to Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova, West Virginia and Louisville.

South Florida – new to the conference this season – is the only winless team in the Big East, but the Bulls lost to the Hoyas, Wildcats and Cardinals by only three points each. The Georgetown and Louisville losses were on the road, as well.

“I think they really like to play on the road more than at home,” Brey said. “They really, fearlessly, go on the road. They’ll be excited to play here.”

Notre Dame is coming off a 90-63 blowout of the same Rutgers team that won 91-84 Sunday over Marquette – a team that beat the Irish by two points on a buzzer-beater Jan. 20. The Big East produces such parity.

Irish senior forward Torin Francis was named to the Big East Weekly Honor Roll for the third time this season after scoring 21 points and grabbing seven rebounds against the Scarlet Knights. He combined with senior forward Rick Cornett (14 points, seven rebounds) in that game to dominate the inside on both ends of the court – a performance Brey hopes to replicate Wednesday.

“[South Florida] really, physically, get[s] after you defensively,” Brey said. “They’re pretty straightforward with how they play. They’re a talented group. I know they haven’t had the best of luck finishing games, but we can’t feel sorry for them.”

Notre Dame is 9-4 at home this season but only 2-3 in Big East games at the Joyce Center. The Irish have five games remaining, including tonight’s test, to make up ground on teams ahead of them for the final spots in the 12-team Big East tournament field.

Providence (4-6), Rutgers (4-7), Louisville (4-7), St. John’s (3-7), DePaul (2-9) and Notre Dame are all at the bottom of the pack. And if Marquette (6-5), Syracuse (5-5) and Cincinnati (5-6) hold their spots at Nos. 7, 8 and 9, that will leave just three openings.

Three other Big East games take place tonight, all with certain or possible implications for Notre Dame postseason hopes.

Pittsburgh plays at Providence, Cincinnati visits Syracuse and St. John’s goes on the road against Rutgers, with all games beginning at 7:30 p.m.