January 26, 2009

Basketball Preview: No. 8 Marquette @ Notre Dame

If this isn't the crossroads, it sure looks like it.

Notre Dame (12-6, 3-4)-losers of three straight to the Nos. 3 (Connecticut), 8 (Syracuse), and 9 (Louisville) teams in the country-will try to start another home streak Monday night when they host No. 8 Marquette (17-2, 6-0) at the Joyce Center, where the Huskies ended Notre Dame's 45-game home winning streak 48 hours earlier.

The Golden Eagles are flying high entering tonight's game. Six straight conference victories to open Big East play have placed Marquette atop the conference with Louisville at 6-0.

Marquette has had a rather easy run to the top of the pack. Home games against Villanova (79-72), Cincinnati (84-50), West Virginia (75-53) and DePaul (79-70), and road trips to Rutgers (81-76) and Providence (91-82) has made for a relatively tame start in a land-mined filled conference slate.

Marquette's success has come against teams with a combined 14-20 Big East mark, and that's excluding their own victories against that opposition.

Even after tonight, the Golden Eagles have Georgetown at home, trips to DePaul, South Florida and Villanova, and home games against St. John's and Seton Hall up next. The schedule certainly has benefited Marquette, and looks like it will continue to assist them until closing with Connecticut, at Louisville, at Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

Yet there's little doubt about the talent Marquette puts on the floor. The Golden Eagles lead the Big East in scoring with an 81.5-point average. Marquette also leads the Big East in scoring margin with a decisive 14.3 mark while pacing the conference in three-point field goal percentage (.405).

Six-foot-five senior Wesley Matthews has taken his game up a notch, averaging 19.2 points per game and 5.5 rebounds with an 83.2 free-throw percentage. His running mate, 6-foot-3 senior Jerel McNeal, is averaging 18.9 points per game on the year, but a dazzling 23.0 in six Big East games while shooting 53.1 percent.

Dominic James, the 5-foot-11 senior who runs the show for the Golden Eagles, serves as Marquette's Tory Jackson, only with more shooting range. James averages 11.4 points and 5.4 assists while tossing in 25 three-pointers.

The most underrated member of the Golden Eagles is 6-foot-6 junior Lazar Hayward, who averages 16.5 points per game with 29 three-pointers.

Matthews (19), McNeal (45), Hayward (29), James (25) and subs Maurice Acker (8) and David Cubillan (9) have combined for 135 three-pointers.

Yet this is a game the Irish should be able to hold their own on the backboards. Six-foot-eight senior Dwight Burke represents the majority of Marquette's bulk, and he averages just 3.0 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.

Hayward is the wild card. He played extremely well against the Irish last year when he combined for 38 points and 22 rebounds in a pair of games against Notre Dame. The Irish must contain Hayward. Matthews and McNeal likely will combine for their usual 38 points per game.

Look for the Irish to continue the ball movement and execution on the offensive end that picked up once again Saturday against Connecticut. With Notre Dame's back to the wall, expect the Irish to come out swinging before traveling to Pittsburgh this weekend.

The Golden Eagles are due to have their wings clipped, and the Fighting Irish will come out playing hard and battling for their Big East lives. The hunch here is the Irish get back on track.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 3
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 87, Marquette 77
Season record: 13-5 overall; 5-6 vs. points

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