Men’s Big East Notebook

Historical season for South Florida could translate to NCAA Tournament bid

South Florida guaranteed itself a winning Big East record for the first time in school history Sunday with a 56-47 victory at Pittsburgh. The Bulls (17-10, 10-4 Big East) joined the conference in 2005-’06. That year they finished dead last, winning just one game in conference play.

The highest South Florida has ever finished since it joined the Big East was a tie for ninth place in 2009-’10, when it finished 9-9 in conference play.

The Bulls have won four consecutive games and eight of its last 10 heading into a match up with Syracuse this Wednesday. The biggest reason for the Bulls’ success has been its defense, as South Florida is the best statistical defensive team in the conference, allowing just 58.2 points per game and ranking 12th nationally.

Even though it’s been an historical season in Tampa, the Bulls’ tournament credentials are still questionable. Their best win is at home against a Seton Hall team that is firmly on the bubble. Also on the Bulls’ resume are losses against Big Six conference bottom-feeders Penn State and Auburn.

An opportunity to dance in March will depend largely on the Bulls’ performance in their last four games of the regular season. South Florida hosts Cincinnati and West Virginia along with road trips to Syracuse and Louisville.

A split of that slate and a good performance in the Big East Tournament would put a lot of pressure on the selection committee, but anything less than that performance would confirm the belief of many experts that South Florida is merely the benefactor of a soft conference schedule.

Mike Brey separating from the pack for Coach of the Year

Notre Dame was picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll even when preseason All-Big East selection Tim Abromaitis was still healthy. The graduate senior forward scored 22 points against Missouri in November in a 29-point loss. Abromaitis would suit up one more time before he tore his ACL and was lost for the season.

When Notre Dame’s (19-8, 11-3 Big East) best player went down, many people were quick to write off the Fighting Irish. However, Mike Brey has done possibly the best coaching job of his career in his 12th season in South Bend. Brey has Notre Dame tied with Marquette for second in the Big East.

Notre Dame has been known for being nearly unbeatable in South Bend, but the Fighting Irish have also won four straight games on the road and five of their last six. It is one of many reasons Brey is the leading candidate for Big East coach of the year.

Jim Boeheim has had an incredible season, especially considering the allegations surrounding former assistant coach Bernie Fine early in the season. Buzz Williams and John Thompson III of Georgetown have also done fantastic jobs leading their respective teams to the top of the conference standings.

However, Notre Dame has already locked up a single bye in the conference tournament and has the inside track to a top four finish and a double bye despite the loss of its best player and brutal conference schedule.

Player of the week

C.J. Fair, sophomore forward, Syracuse (#5)  (17.0 points and 6.5 rebounds this week)

PICTURE: http://www.dailyorange.com/polopoly_fs/1.2776148!/image/47804015.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_260/47804015.jpg

No. 2 Syracuse survived a pair of road matchups at Louisville and Rutgers to remain at the top of the Big East standings with three games left. Fair made the game-winning layup with 2:12 left in regulation as the Orange were able to outlast Louisville 52-51 last Monday. On Sunday, Fair poured in a career-high 21 points to hold off a pesky Scarlet Knights squad. He was 11-for-20 from the floor and made 11-of-12 free throws in the two wins.

Game of the week

Notre Dame at Georgetown, Feb. 27

The winner of this game should have an inside track to locking up a double bye in the Big East Championship Tournament. Notre Dame plays two of its final four games against the bottom four in the conference and a win at Georgetown could cement a two seed. Georgetown has a trip to Seton Hall and Marquette and will need to hold serve at home for a top-4 finish.

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