Dwyane Wade may not play for Marquette anymore, but the Golden Eagles are far from an easy assignment for Utah State on Friday when the two teams open the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Marquette, 24-9 overall, finished with a strong 12-6 mark in the rugged Big East Conference and, despite losing the final four games of the regular season, still landed in fifth place in what many have called the toughest league in the country.

"Going all the way back to the Al McGuire era, they've been a great program for a long time," USU coach Stew Morrill said. "Their new coach, Buzz Williams, who was an assistant at Colorado State not too long ago (2000-04), he has done a great job. We'll do our homework on them, watch some film on them and be ready to go."

The Golden Eagles lost in the second round of the Big East tourney and have lost five of six games overall. While that may make Marquette sound like a team ready to be upset by the Aggies, it should be noted those losses came to No. 1 seeds Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh as well as Syracuse and Villanova.

They also came when starting point guard Dominic James was lost for the season with a broken foot suffered in the UConn game.

There are, of course, plenty of other weapons for the Golden Eagles to use. Though not a tall team, Marquette has fast, athletic guards that know how to fill up a basket.

6-foot-3 senior Jerel McNeal averages 19.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, while 6-5 Wesley Matthews, also a senior, scores 18.4 and grabs 5.6 boards per outing. Junior forward Lazar Hayward, 6-6, isn't bad either, scoring 16.1 points and snaring 8.6 boards per contest.

"Their guards dominate the game, so I didn't focus a whole lot on their post players," USU's Gary Wilkinson said of his limited experience watching Marquette this season. "But I am excited for it. It will be a great matchup."

Marquette averages 78.8 points per game and limits opponents to just 44.9 percent shooting while forcing 15.5 turnovers.

E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com