In recent years, the South Florida Bulls have been the laughing stock of the Big East Conference. Last season the Bulls finished with a horrific 9-22 overall record and went 4-14 in Big East play.
In the past two seasons, they won a combined seven Big East games, but thanks to the stellar play of superstar Dominique Jones, the Bulls have gone from pretenders to contenders this season.
In four straight victories — including wins over ranked Pittsburgh and Georgetown — Jones averaged 35 points per game.
“He’s a real good player,” Marquette senior guard Maurice Acker said of Jones. “He can shoot the ball and get to the basket because he’s a big guard. He can put the ball in the basket whenever he wants but also gets his team going, too.”
Jones leads the Bulls into the Bradley Center Saturday night in what looks to be a decisive match-up between two teams on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in.
Having already won five conference games, upstart South Florida (15-8, 5-6 Big East) has shocked the college basketball world by even being in the mix for a postseason bid.
“They’ve been winning and playing well this season,” senior guard David Cubillan said. “They’re going to come ready to play Saturday.”
Marquette comes in with a similar resume and has also made some noise in conference play the last couple weeks.
After shocking Connecticut on its home floor Jan. 30, the Golden Eagles have taken care of business against Rutgers, DePaul and most recently Providence on the road.
Senior forward Lazar Hayward has taken this team on his back and has Marquette playing its best basketball of the season.
Hayward tied a career-high with 28 points in a win at Providence Saturday, including two clutch free throws to seal the victory.
“Lazar has done a lot for us this season,” junior guard Dwight Buycks said. “He’s an unbelievable player on the court and off the court. He’s doing everything he can for this to be a good season for him. As teammates we’re doing everything we can for him to have a great senior year.”
Revenge is also on the agenda for the Golden Eagles, as one of South Florida’s four conference wins last season was against Marquette.
With the upset, the Bulls snapped Marquette’s 12-game winning streak when Marquette reached No. 8 in the nation, its highest rank of the 2008-’09 season.
Standing at 15-8 overall and 6-5 in the Big East, every game from this point on is crucial for the Golden Eagles. Coach Buzz Williams’ overachieving bunch has gone above and beyond expectations this season and controls its own destiny in terms of making the field of 65 come March.
“Right now it’s crunch time and we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Cubillan said. “Every game we play from here on out we have to come out and play great basketball. Every Big East game is big, and we all want to win, so we just have to be ready to go and hope to come out with a win.”