Marquette has ridden the play of three talented guards to NCAA tournament appearances the last three years, but an undersized power forward may be pivotal to the team matching that success this season.
Lazar Hayward looks to continue his recent strong play as the 24th-ranked Golden Eagles head to Raleigh to play North Carolina State on Monday.
Hayward is third on Marquette with 16.9 points per game, and the 6-foot-6 junior is averaging a team-high 9.7 rebounds. He had a career-high 27 points in helping the Golden Eagles (9-2) bounce back from a loss to No. 16 Tennessee with a 94-77 victory over Western Carolina on Friday.
The junior accounted for all the scoring in a 12-4 first-half run that gave Marquette a 20-point lead en route to a 53-27 halftime advantage.
“Hopefully, I don’t jinx it,” said Hayward, who has averaged 17.3 points and 10.8 rebounds in his last four games. “But I just think it’s me attacking, playing the right way, my teammates getting me the ball.”
Hayward’s offensive surge has helped create opportunities for senior guards Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James. McNeal hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points Friday, while Matthews added 18 points and James had six assists.
“I think ‘Zar is a hard guy to guard,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “He becomes a harder guy to guard when our three guards are playing really well. We’ve tried to get him more touches in different spots on the floor, and I think he’s getting into a rhythm.”
Matthews is averaging a team-high 20.4 points and has taken 106 free throws, making 90. McNeal is scoring 17.5 points per game and has made 43.6 percent (24-for-55) from 3-point range, while James is averaging 10.5 points and team highs of 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals.
Marquette, though, will be facing a North Carolina State team that improved to 6-0 at the RBC Center with a 78-58 win over Lipscomb on Saturday. Brandon Costner scored 13 points for the Wolfpack (7-1), and coach Sidney Lowe also singled out freshman Julius Mays, who had nine points and seven assists without a turnover in his first start.
“Julius Mays ran the show and he was able to slow it down when he saw we didn’t have anything,” said Lowe, who didn’t play Mays in the Wolfpack’s win over East Carolina on Wednesday. “As a freshman, I think he did a great job for us.”
Mays likely will start again as Javi Gonzalez continues to recover from a lacerated elbow suffered against East Carolina.
Senior swingman Courtney Fells made his return Saturday after missing the previous two games with a sprained ankle, going scoreless in six minutes.
“We knew Courtney Fells’ timing would be off,” Lowe said. “I wanted to get him in for a couple minutes to help prepare him for Marquette.”
The 6-6 Fells is third on the team with 11.3 points per game and is shooting 53.2 percent.
N.C. State leads the series 2-1 and beat Marquette 76-64 in the 1974 NCAA title game. The Golden Eagles got their only victory in the most recent meeting during the 1991-92 season.