TAMPA — As much as the Bulls carried over from last year's special season, from playmaking point guard Anthony Collins to exciting swingman Victor Rudd, their ability to make another NCAA Tournament run depended on their men in the middle.
As coach Stan Heath says, size and experience inside are "valuable commodities," and USF doesn't have a lot of either.
That continued to be a theme in another deflating defeat Saturday afternoon, as the Bulls blew a nine-point second-half lead to lose 73-65 to No. 24 Notre Dame in front of 6,373 at the Sun Dome.
USF (10-9, 1-6 Big East) has dropped six of its past seven, already matching the number of conference losses it had last season, when it went 12-6.
"They lost some studs on that front line," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "They're a very different team."
Though the Bulls got a lift from freshman forward Zach LeDay, who had a team-high 17 points, they still struggle to make up for the losses from last season of big men Ron Anderson and Augustus Gilchrist. They had trouble defending pin-down screens and once again were dominated on the boards, 34-17, including allowing 13 offensive rebounds.
Notre Dame senior forward Tom Knight, making his fourth career start (for injured senior captain Scott Martin), had 17 points, his first game in double figures.
"I think it's obvious: We've lost an experienced front line," Heath said. "Ron Anderson, who really controlled the middle and … Augustus Gilchrist, 6-foot-10, 240 (pounds), who gave us some muscle and scoring inside. And Hugh Robertson was a lockdown defender; some things that are happening now, guys didn't get those kinds of looks because he'd take a guy out. We've been trying to fill those kind of roles."
With two of the Bulls' top scorers, forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick and Rudd (seven points each), relatively quiet, two of their freshmen came off the bench to deliver a spark. LeDay took over for starting forward Kore White (zero points, zero rebounds in eight minutes), and guard JaVontae Hawkins (11 points) continued to impress to give USF a seven-point halftime lead.
Said LeDay: "We're trying to get bigger and better, and trying to make it to the next level."
In the second half, Notre Dame (16-4, 4-3) quickly erased the deficit and took control of the game, clamping down defensively and getting easy baskets in transition. The Bulls, who shot 60 percent in the first half, missed nine of their first 11 attempts in the second (when they shot 38.5 percent), with the Irish regaining the lead five minutes in and never looking back.
The Irish also did a better job of containing Collins, who had just two of his 12 points in the second half. "If we didn't fix that, we would have lost by 15," Brey said. "He's a fearless guy. There's no one else like him in our league."
Heath prefers to have an inside-out type of offense, but without a true low post threat, he says the Bulls are "very reliant" on 3-pointers. They struggled in that category, too, going 6-for-21.
Said Heath: "I just thought that once (Notre Dame) got momentum going in the second half, we just couldn't get it back."