Even with a victory in its last game, Marquette learned it can take nothing for granted in the rugged Big East. The Golden Eagles try to apply that lesson Saturday when they host a West Virginia squad looking to bounce back from one of its worst offensive games of the season.
Ranked 18th, Marquette (14-2) is off to its first 3-0 start in Big East play since joining the conference in 2005. After two solid home victories, the Golden Eagles were cruising at Rutgers before nearly squandering all of a 21-point second-half lead in their 81-76 win over the Scarlet Knights on Wednesday.
“You take it how you can get it,” said senior Wesley Matthews, who scored 23 points and set a school record by going 10-for-10 from the field. “It shouldn’t have been a game like this, we (almost) blew a 21-point lead. That happens. It’s the Big East, you’re on the road.”
But back home, Marquette has been dominant, going 11-0 while averaging 85.3 points and outscoring opponents by 20 points per game. In their two Big East wins at the Bradley Center, the Golden Eagles shot 51.0 percent (25-for-49) from 3-point range.
A key reason for their success has been Matthews, who hadn’t averaged more than 12.6 points in any of his first three seasons. The 6-foot-5 guard leads the Golden Eagles in scoring at 19.3 points per game and is shooting 53.9 percent from the field while getting to the foul line nearly nine times per contest (113-for-137).
“The reason why he’s had the success he’s had is because he’s the best practice player I’ve ever been around,” first-year Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “When you play like that on a daily basis, whether it’s practice or a game, that’s what your game evolves into. We’ve asked him to do a lot of things because of the complexion of our roster, we’re grateful for the way he’s been playing and we’ve needed every single point and rebound he’s given.”
Matthews, along with fellow seniors Jerel McNeal and Dominic James, and junior forward Lazar Hayward have comprised the bulk of Marquette’s offense. The quartet has combined to average 67.3 points, which is 80.1 percent of the team’s offense.
But the four likely will face a stern challenge from the 25th-ranked Mountaineers (11-3, 1-1), who lead the Big East in scoring defense at 56.6 points per game and 3-point defensive field goal percentage (26.6). West Virginia, though, is trying to bounce back from Thursday’s 61-55 home loss to No. 5 Connecticut in which it was outrebounded 52-33 and shot a season-low 30.3 percent.
Even as his team tries to regroup, coach Bob Huggins knows he is walking a fine line without injured point guard Joe Mazzulla. The Mountaineers are starting two freshmen in forward Devin Ebanks and Darryl Bryant - taking Mazzulla’s spot - with fellow first-year player Kevin Jones one of the top reserves.
“We’re getting unbelievable mileage out of three freshmen. We’re playing against 22-year-old men,” Huggins said. “Twenty-two-year-old guys are a lot bigger and a lot stronger.”
Ebanks is averaging 7.6 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds, while Bryant is averaging 11.1 points and 3.0 assists.
The home team has posted lopsided victories in the last three seasons, with Alex Ruoff hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 19 points in West Virginia’s 79-64 win last season. James had 21 points, six assists and five steals in the last game in Milwaukee, an 81-63 romp by Marquette on Jan. 13, 2007.