In the highly competitive Big East, first-place Marquette has been exceeding expectations. Last-place DePaul, meanwhile, is right where most expected it to be.
The 11th-ranked Golden Eagles look to open with their best start to conference play in school history on Saturday when they host the struggling Blue Demons, who are off to their worst league start in a dozen years.
Marquette (16-2, 5-0) was picked to finish sixth in the Big East, but after three weeks of league play, it’s tied with No. 9 Louisville atop the conference.
The Golden Eagles haven’t played since defeating Providence 91-82 last Saturday, their eighth straight victory after an 80-68 road loss to then-No. 16 Tennessee on Dec. 16.
Marquette rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit against the Friars as Lazar Hayward hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 3:25 left to give the Golden Eagles their first lead since the opening minutes.
Marquette’s comeback was overshadowed by a bizarre sequence early in the second half, though.
Friars guard Jeff Xavier was scraped in the face when he drove to the basket with 17:13 left, but no foul was called. At the next whistle, Xavier’s brother came down from the stands and jumped over the Providence bench before going chest-to-chest with one of the referees. Security hustled him off.
“I told the officials, ‘We’ll leave, because that’s extremely dangerous,”’ Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “I saw the guy coming out of the stands. Forget the game; I’m going to protect the guys. I’m going to protect those guys no matter what.”
Williams’ team stayed and extended their best league start since joining the Big East in 2005-06.
The Golden Eagles last began 5-0 in conference play when they were a member of the Great Midwest in 1992-93. Marquette, which was an independent before joining the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1989-90, has never opened 6-0 in league play.
DePaul (8-11, 0-6) comes in as one of three winless teams in the Big East. The Blue Demons, who were picked to finish 15th in the 16-team conference, are off to their worst start since opening 0-11 in 1995-96 when they were in Conference USA.
Marquette defeated DePaul 79-71 last season, and has won 11 of the last 14 meetings. The Golden Eagles, who are 12-0 at the Bradley Center in 2008-09, have won seven straight home games over the Blue Demons, and 13 of the last 14 in Milwaukee.
Hayward, who finished with 14 points against DePaul last season, scored 25 last Saturday.
Jerel McNeal also had 25 points against Providence, and has scored 24 points or more in four of Marquette’s conference games.
Hayward, McNeal and senior Wesley Matthews, who’s averaging a team-high 19.1 points, lead a Golden Eagles’ offense that tops the Big East in scoring (81.6 points per game). The Blue Demons will likely have trouble keeping pace, as they’re averaging 59.2 points in their last five conference games.
DePaul is coming off Tuesday’s 70-61 loss to South Florida, its second loss in 10 days to the Bulls. South Florida outrebounded the Blue Demons 48-28, and DePaul has been outrebounded by an average of 16.6 boards in its last three games.
Dar Tucker finished with a team-high 19 points, but was just 5-for-19 from the floor. Tucker, who leads DePaul in scoring (18.6), had 12 points against Marquette last season.
The Blue Demons are 1-5 on the road, and have lost six straight away from home against Top 25 opponents since an 84-81 win over then-No. 16 Wake Forest on Dec. 13, 2005.