The advent of Notre Dame’s “Burn Offense” in mid-February 2010 has produced 28 wins in the last 35 conference games. It will likely be set aside for one evening as the #3 seed Irish take on the #6 Bulls, a group that boasts the best scoring defense in the history of the Big East conference.
South Florida limited foes to just 56.9 points per game this season and held each of their last nine foes below 60 points. Mike Brey’s Notre Dame team put exactly that number on newly minted Big East coach of the year, Stan Heath, and his scrappy unit in an 11-point Irish victory in early November.
Senior forward Scott Martin led Notre Dame in that contest, scoring 15 points with 13 boards while Jack Cooley led all scorers with 16. South Florida’s Augustus Gilchrist managed 13 and Jawanza Poland 12 in defeat.
Both teams have improved considerably since with the Bulls winning 11 of 15 and the Irish 10 of 12 to conclude their slate, one that included a program-record nine game winning streak.
The Bulls beat Villanova 56-47 Wednesday night to advance to tonight’s contest. Notre Dame has yet to play in the tournament after receiving a double by as reward for their third-place finish.
The Irish have won six straight vs. the Bulls but this will be the first matchup between the schools in tournament play.
“We’re playing a team that’s a heck of a defensive team but one of the challenges I made to our group (because) we’re a really good defensive team too…for us to be really ready to defend.
“We have to rebound the basketball, they have great size. Offensively we have to move them around a bit. Can we get out and get some easy buckets and not play against their set defense? That would help.”
Because both teams excel defensively (ranking 1-2 in conference games in terms of points allowed), Las Vegas set the game’s point total (over/under) at a remarkably low 108 points.
Notre Dame might not be the only team looking to capitalize before the defense can dig in.
"I don't expect it to be a high scoring game, but if we get a chance to get it up and down the court a little bit, we'll try," Heath said. "But if not, we know we're going to have to work real hard for good shots, too."
For Brey’s Irish, the key will be embracing a theory that’s served them well for the last 70 days. “To be loose and play. One of the phrases used for our team all year is, we played with ‘House Money.’ If we can continue to play like that, with nothing to lose (is the goal).”
Notre Dame was installed as a two-point favorite in tonight's contest.
Note: For detailed previews of each member of Notre Dame’s six-man rotation, click the links below:
Backcourt: Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant
Swingmen: Alex Dragicevich and Pat Connaughton
Jack Cooley and Scott Martin