No. 5 Xavier rolls into Marquette meeting

MILWAUKEE — After rolling through its nonconference schedule by winning 12 of its 13 games, No. 5 Xavier kicks off the Big East portion of its 2017-18 slate Wednesday night against Marquette.

Since dropping a 102-86 decision to Arizona State on Nov. 24 in the Las Vegas Invitational, the Musketeers have rattled off seven straight victories, including a 77-67 triumph at Northern Iowa last week.

But the road gets significantly tougher now for coach Chris Mack’s squad, especially against a Marquette team that swept Xavier a year ago and features the top two scorers in the league this season in Markus Howard (21.8 points per game) and Andrew Rowsey (20.7).

“They really stretch you,” Mack said Tuesday following the team’s workout. “They’ve got a great roster, they have really good experience and they have three of the best shooters in the entire country. So much attention is paid to the two little guys because they do such a phenomenal job of opening things up for their teammates. They’re a threat anywhere on the floor. I love the way they push the ball in transition. Sam Hauser is having a special year so we have our work cut out for us.”

In the teams’ first meeting last season, the Golden Eagles led 21-2 and Howard knocked down a program-record nine 3-pointers, finishing with 34 points in an 83-61 rout.

Two weeks later in Cincinnati, Marquette showed its first go-round was no fluke. The Golden Eagles shot 61 percent from the floor and hit 12 of 21 attempts from distance in a 95-84 victory.

“We weren’t very good against them in both games last year,” Mack said. “But I think our team recognizes what Marquette brings to the table.”

This year’s version of the Golden Eagles offers much of the same Xavier saw a year ago. Howard and Rowsey pace an offense that’s shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and 48.4 percent overall.

And while Marquette’s offense gets most of the attention, they’ve been tough on the defensive side, too.

During the Golden Eagles’ four-game winning streak, they’ve held opponents to 41.2 percent shooting with an average of 15.3 turnovers per game.

That defense will be put to the test against Xavier, which is second in the league with an average of 86.9 points per contest on 52.2 percent shooting, including 39.2 from beyond the arc.

“They’re a top-10 team,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “They return everybody from an Elite Eight team last year. (Senior guard Trevon) Bluiett is a national player of the year-type candidate. (J.P.) Macura is a four-year stud in the Big East. (Quentin) Goodin, who plays point guard for them, has made a big jump from his freshman to his sophomore year.

“Obviously they’re really well-coached. They rebound, they play defense, they’re an elite shooting team.”

The Golden Eagles went 8-3 in nonconference play, falling to No. 19 Purdue, No. 6 Wichita State and to Georgia but have won seven of their last eight, including four in a row coming into the conference opener.

“I think we challenged ourselves in the nonconference and I think overall we did well,” Wojciechowski said. “Probably had a game here or there that we could have won that we didn’t (but) we probably had a game here or there that we could have lost but we didn’t.

“I think it prepared us well for the Big East. The Big East is as good of a conference as there is in the United States. Our league is old, talented and extremely well-coached.”

Xavier had won six straight meetings before the Golden Eagles swept the season series a year ago.