Marquette entered the Top 25 by taking care of business at home to start Big East play. To stay in the poll, the Golden Eagles will likely need a win Wednesday at Rutgers, which is facing its fourth consecutive ranked opponent.
The No. 18 Golden Eagles (13-2, 2-0) returned to the Top 25 after a two-week absence on the strength of a 79-72 win over then-No. 15 Villanova - now tied in the poll with Marquette - and an 84-50 rout of Cincinnati on Sunday. The Golden Eagles got off to their first 2-0 start in the Big East since joining in 2005 as Jerel McNeal set a school record by going 7-for-7 from 3-point range and finishing with 26 points.
McNeal helped Marquette match a school mark with 15 3s.
“The basket was looking real big early on there,” said McNeal, named Big East player of the week after averaging 25.0 points in the two wins while shooting 73.3 percent (11-for-15) from 3-point range. “I made a couple in a row and after that, it felt like all of them were going in.
“It feels really good. It’s the first time we started out 2-0 in our conference season.”
McNeal has keyed a surge in 3-point shooting for Marquette, which is hitting 63.0 percent (17-for-27) from beyond the arc during its current five-game winning streak. Lazar Hayward has made 14 of 26 3 attempts and the Golden Eagles have shot 50 percent (52-for-104) from outside the arc in those games.
While McNeal (18.1 ppg), Hayward (17.0) and leading scorer Wesley Matthews (19.1) have carried the team offensively, Dominic James has been the focal point on defense. The senior point guard held Cincinnati’s Deonta Vaughn, who averages a team-best 14.1 points, scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting.
James’ next defensive assignment will likely be Rutgers guard Mike Rosario, who leads Big East freshmen with 17.3 points per game. Rosario totaled 48 points in back-to-back losses to then-top-ranked North Carolina and then-No. 3 Pittsburgh, but was limited to 10 on a season-worst 2-of-13 shooting in Rutgers’ 80-49 defeat at then-No. 2 Connecticut on Saturday.
Fellow freshman forward Gregory Echenique, who had only 10 points combined against the Tar Heels and Panthers, scored a season-high 17 as Rutgers (9-6, 0-2) completed a brutal three-game, seven-day stretch against the nation’s elite.
“This was the best defensive team, tonight, of the three we faced,” said Rutgers coach Fred Hill, whose team shot 28.8 percent versus the Huskies. “I think you can get mentally worn down. In the second half, the end of the week probably got to us mentally a little bit, more so than I might have liked.”
The Scarlet Knights will have a size advantage Wednesday with the 6-foot-9 Echenique, who’s averaging 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds, and 6-11 center Hamady N’Diaye, who is contributing 6.3 points, 6.9 boards and 3.5 blocks per game. Dwight Burke is Marquette’s tallest starter at 6-8, and 6-10 freshman Chris O’Tule has logged just 38 minutes after missing the first 11 games due to injury.
James, McNeal, Matthews and Hayward combined for 54 points on 23-for-37 shooting in Marquette’s 78-48 win over Rutgers on Feb. 23. The home team has won all three meetings since the squads became Big East rivals, with Rutgers taking the first matchup Feb. 12, 2006.