South Florida-Notre Dame Preview
By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN
(AP) -- Notre Dame forward Jack Cooley was named the Big East's most improved player, although he didn't look any different to South Florida from last season.
Cooley has dominated the Bulls the last two times he has faced them and will try to lead the No. 23 Fighting Irish to a seventh straight win in the series Thursday night in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.
Notre Dame (21-10) finished in third place in the conference with Cooley a major factor as he averaged 12.5 points, a team-best 9.2 rebounds and posted 10 double-doubles in Big East play. The junior earned second team All-Big East honors as well as the most improved award after averaging 3.7 points and 3.1 boards a season ago.
"I'm extremely happy with what I've received and most improved, it's that big trophy," Cooley said. "So I'm really excited about that."
Cooley's best game prior to this season was when he scored 18 points on 9-of-10 shooting to go with eight rebounds in a 78-55 rout of South Florida (20-12) on Feb. 12, 2011. He had 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting along with seven boards in a 60-49 home win over the Bulls on Jan. 10.
"Jack Cooley has had big time games against us the last couple years, so we've got to do a good job with him," Bulls coach Stan Heath said.
These teams have never met in the Big East tournament. South Florida is seeking to win two games in this event for the first time and bolster its NCAA tournament hopes after winning 56-47 over Villanova on Wednesday.
Notre Dame has loftier goals, having never advanced to the title game.
"We've gotten to the semis twice from the double-bye," coach Mike Brey said. "But we've talked about wanting to get to Saturday night for our program."
South Florida has held its last nine opponents below 60 points while Notre Dame allowed an average of 61.7 points this season.
"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."
A terrific matchup of freshman point guards is on tap between Notre Dame's Jerian Grant and South Florida's Anthony Collins, both named to the conference's all-rookie team.
Grant averaged 12.5 points and 4.9 assists and is among the nation's leaders with a 2.83 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"It's definitely an honor," Grant said. "There were a lot of good rookies this year and that was one of my goals coming into the season personally and I met it so I'm excited."
Collins had a team-high 17 points Wednesday, and is looking forward to his next game after being outscored 14-6 by Grant in the first matchup.
"We were still close in the Notre Dame game the last few minutes, I believe, because our defense, of course," Collins said. "If we just come out on offense and execute, we should give ourselves a chance."
The winner will face No. 9 Marquette or Louisville in Friday's semifinals.
Updated March 8, 2012