I'm not one for revenge," Dominique Jones says, and then the South Florida junior guard explains why he sought exactly that after the Bulls' upset of then No. 7 Georgetown on Feb. 3.
"For years we have gone into places like Georgetown and their fans have called us names because we were at the bottom. Now we're not at the bottom, so I decided it was my turn to say what I gotta say." What Jones said to the crowd after South Florida upset the Hoyas, its second straight win over a ranked opponent and fourth in a row overall, was benign ("Y'all come watch Dominique Jones play!"). But the fact that a player from South Florida (South Florida!) taunted the home crowd of a top 10 team speaks to how wide open the Big East landscape is in the last month of the regular season.
Traditional powers Louisville and Connecticut, along with recent NCAA tournament mainstay Marquette, are fighting just to be a part of March Madness, along with bubble regulars Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Then there are the surprising Bulls, who are 4--1 in their last five conference games (5--6 in conference play, 15--8 overall) and eyeing their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1992.
"It is just so hard to put a string of wins together [in the Big East]," says South Florida coach Stan Heath, whose teams won just seven Big East games over the past two seasons. "Any night you can suffer a loss that knocks you out of contention, and any night you can get that big win that puts you right back in it."
That Heath's Bulls are right back in it stands as one of the season's most stunning developments. South Florida started off 7--1 but then lost 6'10" center Augustus Gilchrist, at the time the team's leading scorer (18.8 points), to an ankle injury on Dec. 7. An embarrassing defeat at home to Central Michigan followed, and a short time later came consecutive losses to Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse and West Virginia to open Big East play.
"I think, mentally, we were like, Here we go again," says Heath. "Our confidence was shaken."
On Jan. 23 USF traveled to Providence with a 1--5 conference mark and appeared headed for another doomed season. Down five points with 11 seconds left, the Bulls won 109--105 in overtime behind 46 points and 10 rebounds from Jones. He followed that with 28 points in an overtime victory over Seton Hall, 37 points in a 70--61 upset of then No. 17 Pittsburgh and 29 in the victory over the Hoyas.
"I think for a while I have been underrated, but to be a star you have to win," says Jones, the nation's second-leading scorer since Jan. 1, with 28.5 points per game (21.9 overall).
A 6'4" combo guard, Jones was lightly recruited out of Lake Wales (Fla.) High; South Florida was the only major-conference school to offer him a scholarship. He could always score, leading the Bulls in that category during his freshman and sophomore seasons, but this year he has become a complete player.
"The way he is finishing games now, making key defensive plays and playing with no fear—he is leading," Heath says. "He is relishing the chance to do something special."
South Florida has only one remaining game against the Big East's top five teams (at Villanova on Feb. 24) and Gilchrist's expected return this week should give the Bulls a boost.
Teams in Trouble
• The Bulls' rise in the standings is making life uncomfortable for five potential Big East bubble teams who already have enough troubles of their own.
CONNECTICUT (14--9, 4--6): An upset of then No. 1 Texas on Jan. 23 was followed by losses to Providence, Marquette and Louisville. With coach Jim Calhoun still on a leave of absence, the Huskies face the toughest remaining schedule of any of the bubble teams, including clashes at Syracuse, at Villanova and against West Virginia.
MARQUETTE (15--8, 6--5): If the Golden Eagles hold serve at home (South Florida, Pitt, Louisville, Notre Dame), they are probably in on the strength of their nonconference schedule and a quality win over Georgetown earlier in the season. A victory at Connecticut on Jan. 30 could prove to be a valuable tiebreaker.
LOUISVILLE (15--8, 6--4): With an 0--4 mark against ranked teams and a soft nonconference slate (which featured a loss to UNLV, one of the few quality opponents), the Cardinals might need to win one of their two remaining games against Syracuse or upset Georgetown to ensure that they won't miss the tournament.
CINCINNATI (14--9, 5--6): The Bearcats' résumé is solid, with nonconference victories over Vanderbilt and Maryland, who were ranked 24th and 22nd at the time. But Cincinnati is unlikely to win against West Virginia, Villanova and Georgetown, so a victory or two in the Big East tournament might be needed to secure an NCAA berth.
NOTRE DAME (17--7, 6--5): The squad that features All-America Luke Harangody—the nation's third-leading scorer (24.5 points)—and six other upperclassmen has underachieved, but they held USF's Jones to 10 points on 3-of-17 shooting in a 65--52 win on Sunday. They still have to face Louisville, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, UConn and Marquette. If that stretch doesn't kill the Irish's hopes, their inability to win on the road in the Big East and a weak nonconference slate probably will.
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Photograph by SHELLEY FELLER/SDPHOTOGRAPHY
POINTS MADE Jones's game is getting some respect now that South Florida is winning.
GEOFF BOLTE/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL
ROAD BLOCKS Harangody and the Irish face a tough schedule down the homestretch.