Marquette-Notre Dame Preview

The Associated Press

Marquette was able to overcome its lack of size in its last game thanks in part to a breakout performance by Vander Blue.

That smaller rotation leading to a faster pace for the 15th-ranked Golden Eagles worries Notre Dame coach Mike Brey as the Big East rivals meet Saturday in South Bend, Ind.

Marquette (19-4, 8-2) has won seven straight and trails No. 2 Syracuse by one game for the Big East lead. The Golden Eagles were able to defeat Seton Hall 66-59 on Tuesday without starting forward Davante Gardner, who sat out with a sprained left knee suffered last Saturday at Villanova and is doubtful for this game.

While Gardner had boosted his game in conference play with averages of 12.2 points and 6.6 rebounds, Blue averaged just 4.4 points on 32.1 percent shooting in his last 12 games despite starting them all.

However, the 6-foot-5 sophomore picked up the slack Tuesday with 16 points and eight rebounds, including five on the offensive end, and his finish of an alley-oop sparked Marquette's second-half comeback. It was the first game in double figures for Blue since Dec. 17.

"That's what we need him to do, night in and night out," said teammate Jae Crowder, who had 20 points and a season-high 12 rebounds. "When he does that consistently, I think we'll be even better than (the way) we're playing right now. A lot of teams are disrespecting him because of his lack of consistency early in the year. But once he gets that down, we'll be even better."

The 6-8, 290-pound Gardner had taken a starting spot in December after center Chris Otule suffered a season-ending knee injury. If Gardner is unable to play, 6-7 sophomore Jamil Wilson (6.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg) likely will get another start. He was the tallest player to appear Tuesday for the Golden Eagles - second in the Big East in scoring at 76.1 points per game - and they'll likely pick up the tempo with an undersized lineup.

"I think any time you play at Notre Dame, it's a unique experience," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "How they play is still the same, a frustrating style, particularly for a team built as ours is."

That speed is a major concern for Brey, who uses a 'burn' offense to control flow as Notre Dame (14-8, 6-3) tries to grind down opponents. It worked last season against the Golden Eagles, when the Irish overcame a 12-point deficit at home in an 80-75 victory Jan. 22, 2011.

It has continued to pay dividends, as the Irish carry a three-game winning streak into this game that started with handing the Orange their only loss. Notre Dame has been off since Sunday, when it avenged an earlier loss to Connecticut with a 50-48 road victory over the previously 24th-ranked Huskies.

"Controlling tempo has helped us, but the possessions we had to defend - and they're fewer with the way we're playing - we're really defending," Brey said Thursday. "The defensive identity has been lost in the tempo we're playing offensively but it's been solid."

Notre Dame is 6-1 when holding opponents to 65 or fewer points in conference play. The Irish have held opponents to an average of 49.3 points and 33.1 percent shooting during their winning streak.

Marquette has won seven of 11 between the teams, but Notre Dame leads the all-time series 79-36.

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