A synopsis of the Golden Ealges team so far, a few stabs how Marquette will finish in conference, and a game-by game breakdown of the Big-East slate.
Marquette enters their third Big East Conference season 10-1 and ranked No. 10 by the AP and No. 11 by ESPN/USA Today. Since the Golden Eagles joined the Big East, the only other teams to win 10 or more conference games per season are Pittsburgh and Georgetown. Now that the meat of the schedule is upon us, what do we expect from this team? Marquette's first eleven games have shown us this much…
Jerel McNeal still keeps a spare cape around and has used it on several occasions, making clutch defensive plays at critical moments as he has throughout his MU career. He almost single-handedly averting near disaster against Chaminade in the first game of the Maui Invite, and he seemed poised to do the same thing against Duke. Kyle Singler may have been the MVP at Maui, but that was McNeal's tournament. He still gets caught reaching sometimes, but he has a higher gear in which he becomes one of the Big East's most dangerous players.
Yet in Marquette's biggest game this season, a December 8 road victory over Wisconsin, it was Dominic James who emerged as the hero. James demonstrated the leadership of a seasoned floor general in that contest. Starting wit the UWM game, he was Marquette's leading scorer in five of the next seven games. James has also distinguished himself on the defensive end of the floor, averaging 2.27 steals per game and applying stifling ball pressure.
Wesley Matthews hasn't put up the scoring numbers he has in the past, but he has been an incredibly valuable member of the starting unit, providing tough defense and rebounding. Matthews is consistently called on to guard bigger players and consistently rises to the challenge. He is great at moving his feet and maintaining good defensive position and his physicality will be sorely needed in Big East play.
Lazar Hayward has been arguably the most consistent player on the roster. He contributes on both ends of the floor, and now that his three point stroke is beginning to come around he becomes an even more dangerous offensive player. Like James and McNeal, he is one of those players you want on the floor at all times.
That's not to say that Dwight Burke hasn't been a pleasant surprise this season. His hustle and grit in the Wisconsin game proved just as important as the play of James. He is a strong, physical defender in the post, but he is not very quick and is easily beaten by a good first move.
Marquette's most productive and most exciting lineups have included the big three of James, Matthews and McNeal, along with Hayward and either David Cubillan or Maurice Acker. All six of these players run the floor well and play excellent defense, and those two assets allow Marquette's four-guard looks to succeed against bigger lineups.
Another reason for the success of Marquette's four-guard lineup has been its phenomenal shooting touch. The Golden Eagles are averaging .496 from the field and .363 from beyond the arc going into Big East play.
As with any guard-oriented team, shooting for a high percentage is incredibly vital because it forces the defense to spread out and thus opens up driving lanes. Last season, when Marquette went cold from the field, other teams simply packed the lane and prevented the Golden Eagles from driving for baskets. This season, improved ball movement coupled with a high shooting percentage has forced opposing defenses to rotate constantly and subsequently when they found themselves out of position Marquette took advantage. Don't count on Marquette to continue scoring 80.8 points per game, but when they are able to dictate the tempo the Golden Eagles will put big numbers on the scoreboard. And they will win most of the games in which they do so.
MarquetteHoops.com staff predictions:
Jeff Wolf – 13-5 (T-2nd Big East) 24-6 overall
A mature Golden Eagles squad will beat the teams they are supposed to beat this season. No losses to DePaul or close calls to USF. Marquette will also beat Pitt at home. The Panthers have already lost Mike Cook for the season and will be without Levance Fields 8-10 weeks after both suffered injuries in back-to-back games. The Golden Eagles will somehow pull off a sweep of Louisville, but they will be swept by archrival Notre Dame. The Irish have the potential to be one of the most complete teams in the conference, and new MU nemesis Luke Harangody will cause problems on both ends of the floor. A courageous effort from Lazar Hayward will help Marquette eke out a narrow victory against Villanova in Philly, but a program that has traditionally run out of gas at the end of the season will drop their last two against Georgetown and Syracuse. But never fear, MU will rebound to make a run deep into the Big East Tournament.
Marco Radenkovich - 14-4 (2nd)
The 2007-2008 Big East season will be one of the best ever in the history of the conference, with expected parity amongst evenly matched teams. Marquette goes into conference play on a six game win streak. The toughest part of the season are at the beginning and end for MU, as they go to Morgantown to play West Virginia, host Notre Dame, and travel to Louisville and UCONN, all in the first three weeks. After that stretch, the Golden Eagles can breathe a little easier until the February 9 game vs. Notre Dame in South Bend. Marquette then finishes conference play by going to Villanova, hosting Georgetown and then traveling to the Carrier Dome to play the Syracuse Orange. If the Golden Eagles stay healthy, they have a great chance to go 16-2, but I have them at 14-4, due to their end of the year schedule. Marquette teams in the past have faded towards the end of the season, and this year they cannot afford a slip, with three NCAA tournament bound teams in a row at the end of the schedule.
Nick Chmurski – 12-6 (T-2nd)
The opener against Providence will start the Golden Eagles off on the right foot, but visiting Huggy Bear's den in Morgantown will not be nearly as easy. Loss at WVU. Marquette will win at home against Notre Dame as long as they can find an answer for Luke Harangody. They will split the annual home-and-home series with Louisville. And a loss in South Bend will be followed by another road loss to Seton Hall in what may shape up to be a classic trap game. Marquette will play strong through the middle of their schedule but those last three games look pretty brutal. The Golden Eagles will lose back-to-back games at Villanova and against Georgetown. The Wildcats are very athletic and have a strong home-court advantage in their building, and Georgetown is, well, Georgetown. But they will rebound with a road win against the Orange to end the conference slate.
Another Expert's Take: Brian Henry, Sports Director, Marquette Radio - 13-5 (T-2nd)
Unlike their prior two campaigns, this Marquette team has demonstrated consistently that it has matured. The already present athleticism, on top of this new found confidence (not to mention outside shooting) will account for a few more wins than in years past. However, overall dominance will be impossible with the 18 game buzz saw that is the Big East Conference. Obviously, games against Notre Dame and Louisville are going to be huge, but if this team is serious about winning a conference title, their final two conference games in Georgetown and the 'Cuse will tell the story.
Nick Chmurski's Game-By-Game Breakdown:
Providence W – The opener will be a tough game, but MU will be comfortable at home and pull away with strong guard play.
@ West Virginia L – This might be the toughest game on the conference schedule. This is a very difficult environment, and Bob Huggins' crew plays tough defense and shoots very well from the floor.
Seton Hall W - An improving team with solid guard play will give MU's a nice test, but team depth will seal the deal for MU.
Notre Dame W – Always a tough game, this rivalry is based on history and emotion. MU will get the win at home, but it will be a close hard fought battle in which an answer for Luke Harongody must be found.
@ Louisville L - Despite their ups and downs, Louisville always lays it on the line against MU. Intense defense and hot shooting from behind the arc can be expected from this Cardinal bunch. MU will keep it close but the Cardinals' low post offense and the Freedom Hall environment will be too much down the stretch.
@ UConn W - In the second year of a rebuilding process, the Huskies are much improved team from last year. They will provide MU with their second straight tough road test. Husky talent is still raw and MU's quality will win out in the end.
DePaul W - MU will make short work of the Blue Demons, whose main threat, Draylon Burns, will be shut down by either Dominic James or Jerel McNeal.
USF W - Gransberry will cause many problems for MU down low, but the rest of the team is not solid enought to prevent MU from winning. The Golden Eagles will push the ball and tire out the Bulls.
@ Cincinnati W - This is not the same team that MU remembers epically battling against in Confrence USA with Bob Huggins. MU will have their way all game long, coming away with a relatively easy win.
Louisville W - MU will get revenge from an early season loss against these Cardinals. The big three will shine and MU's big men will take care of business down low and win the rebounding battle.
@ Notre Dame L – South Bend is probably the toughest place to play for MU. The boys will put up a good fight, but MU will fall here in a pretty close one. Harongody and the Irish bigs will make life miserable for MU, and the Golden Eagles will likely get in foul trouble trying to play physical defense. Unless Lazar has the game of his life and MU plays perfectly, expect a tough loss.
@ Seton Hall L - In the middle of a tough four game stretch, this game almost appears to be the easiest. That's why I see this as a big time trap game for MU. The Pirates have enough talent to cause problems and I think MU could be in store for a surprise.
Pittsburgh W – This game is becoming a quite the rivalry in MU's third year in the Big East. It will be a hard fought game, but MU at home will be too much for Pitt, who will be playing without starting backcourt members of Cook and Fields.
@ St. Johns W - MU asserts itself early and determines the game's tempo which will tire out the young and inexperienced Red Storm.
Rutgers W - The Red Knights don't have the scoring power to keep up with MU.
@ Villanova L - Despite being a young squad, the Wildcats are not short on talent. Reynolds and two McDonald's All-Americans round out an impressive backcourt that will match up well against MU's three guard line up. It will be a very interesting game, but a small, loud, and hostile environment will help push Nova past MU in another close one.
Georgetown L - The Hoyuas are the class of the conference, and this is possibly a game that showcases the Big East's number one and two teams. Hibbert and Summers are forces to be reckoned with and will make MU's head spin. Inspired guard play and a festive home environment will keep MU close, but the Hoyas will be too much down the stretch, as they will slow down the game and dominate the boards.
@ Syracuse W - A very tough stretch to end the season concludes with a trip to the Carrier Dome. This will be an intense and close game that will likely mirror what MU can expect to see in the Big East Tourny the following week. MU will scrap and out fight the Orange to avoid a three game losing streak. Important game for Lazar, and look for Fitzgerald to make a difference with his perimeter game.