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USF ready for Madison Square Garden

Just because it took a rule change to get them there doesn’t mean the Bulls won’t enjoy playing in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.

After an inconsistent season, the No. 14 seed Bulls had a consistent feeling in preparing for tonight’s Big East tournament opener against the No. 11 seed Seton Hall Pirates at 9 at the “Mecca of college hoops.”

“I’ve been in there and I’ve seen it on TV, but I’ve never played there,” said sophomore guard Dominique Jones. “It will be a good experience for me. I’m really excited about it. I’ll try not to be too excited, though.”

Last year, USF wasn’t involved in the tournament because of its 12-team format. However, the league has abandoned the previous structure to include all 16 teams. “The Garden” has hosted college basketball events for more than 70 years and is one of the most famous arenas in the world.

“I know it’s the premier place in the world to play basketball, and I know legends have walked the courts and sidelines, but I honestly haven’t been able to give it much thought,” coach Stan Heath said. “You can’t get caught up in the moment — you have to focus on the game — but I guess if (Los Angeles Lakers guard) Kobe (Bryant) and all those guys get excited about it, it must be something.”

Freshman Justin Leemow played at Madison Square Garden in high school at the Nike Super Six in 2005.

“That’s not something that’s really special to me,” he said. “But now just the fact of being able to play in the Garden will be a lot of fun.”

However, Jones said he’s hoping the Bulls can stay focused on the Pirates rather than their surroundings.

“I’ve got to be calm out there on the court … It’s the same court,” he said. “Everybody just has to look at it, be excited about it, be amazed and then get back to the main reason why we’re there.”

The Bulls (9-21, 4-14) will need to stay focused, considering they turned the ball over 19 times in a 75-60 loss to Seton Hall on Feb. 25. USF is also coming off Saturday’s
45-42 loss at Rutgers.

“We didn’t handle the speed and quickness they had very well,” Heath said of that game. “Turnovers led to our loss. We just have to take better care of the basketball.”

If the Bulls beat the Pirates, they’ll move into a matchup with No. 6 seed Syracuse at
9 p.m. Wednesday. The top four teams in the conference received first and second round byes, while the No. 5-8 seeds received first round byes only.

If a team seeded in the last eight were to win the tournament, it would take five consecutive wins to do so — against competition from perhaps the best basketball conference in the country.

“Just playing in that environment and in the tournament, playing with that postseason feel will be good for our experience,” Heath said.