Marquette senior point guard Dominic James wouldn’t mind keeping state bragging rights for another season, but for him and the Golden Eagles, a victory Saturday over archrival Wisconsin is more important for what it can do for them in March.
James has averaged 16.3 points in his previous three games versus the Badgers (6-1), and scored 20 last year when Marquette (6-1) won 81-76 to end Wisconsin’s 28-game home winning streak.
With the 25th-ranked Golden Eagles having lost 89-75 to Dayton on Nov. 29 in their toughest game thus far, James knows Marquette needs a premium non-conference victory as part of a run to an expected fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
“We already have a loss, so we feel like it’s get-back time,” James said after having 15 points and five assists in an 81-67 win over Central Michigan on Tuesday. “We really need this win and with the schedule we have coming up, especially in conference, it’s one of those games that looks great on your resume.
“We know it’s early to start talking about that, but with us being mature guys we know what’s at stake.”
While James has been scoring less at 11.7 points per game, he is averaging 5.6 assists and running first-year coach Buzz Williams’ offense efficiently - compiling a nearly 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in helping Marquette average 87.9 points.
Fellow senior Wesley Matthews has picked up the scoring slack for James, averaging a team-high 22.0 points as the biggest beneficiary of Williams’ new system. Aggressively attacking the basket, the 6-foot-5 Matthews has gone 66-for-75 at the foul line while shooting 50.0 percent from the field.
“We’re going to have to try to get them to play to our strength, which is speed up and down the court,” said Matthews, a native of Madison. “We can’t have them throw easy post passes, because that puts a lot of pressure on the guards to pressure their guys so they can’t just lob it over the top.”
Senior guard Jerel McNeal (17.4 points per game) and junior forward Lazar Hayward (16.7) also average in double figures for Marquette, which has only one player - 6-8 forward Dwight Burke - taller than 6-6 in its current rotation due to injuries.
The Badgers undoubtedly will try to exploit Marquette’s lack of size and frontcourt depth, using their swing offense to create advantageous low-post matchups for their forwards.
Wisconsin blew a nine-point lead in the final 1:13 before pulling out a 74-72 victory at Virginia Tech on Monday in the Big Ten/ACC challenge as Trevon Hughes hit a floater in the lane with 0.9 to play.
“He’s a lead guard and that’s what he’s supposed to do,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan told the Hokies’ official Web site. “He gets it and he pushes it. He can make a play. That’s his job.”
Hughes and Marcus Landry lead the Badgers in scoring at 13.9 and 13.3 points per game, respectively. They have combined to go 23-for-45 from 3-point range, and Ryan has another perimeter option off the bench in 6-8 sophomore Jon Leuer, who is 7-of-8 from beyond the arc while averaging 9.9 points.
Defensively, Hughes will likely pair off with James and the 6-7 Landry with Matthews. While Wisconsin is limiting teams to 60.0 points per game, two of its last three opponents have shot 50 percent or better.
Wisconsin has won seven of the last 10 games between these teams and leads the 91-year-old rivalry 62-52.