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Hayward does what is needed

Marquette relied heavily on its guard trio of Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal and Dominic James -- better known as the Big Three -- as it rolled through the Big East. With so much emphasis on the backcourt, that leaves Lazar Hayward as the X-factor, a role he embraces.

"For me it's about playing hard and providing whatever my team needs," said the former Traditional star. "That's the biggest thing."

That means providing a little bit of everything. At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, he's Marquette's big man. Hayward may be undersized, but his production says otherwise.

He has to go up against the likes of Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet, Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair and Notre Dame's Luke Harangody yet Hayward averages 8.5 rebounds, ninth in the Big East and a better average than centers Arinze Onuaku of Syracuse (7.5) and Georgetown's Greg Monroe (6.7). His deadly midrange game makes Hayward Marquette's top scorer along the front line at 15.9 points a game. He can pull the bigger players away from the basket with his ability to drain three-pointers (34.2 percent).

"He is playing out of position," Marquette coach Buzz Williams told ESPN.com. "It isn't supposed to work like this, but it's what we have and it's what we're going to use. We don't have a choice."

But Marquette keeps winning. The 10th-ranked Golden Eagles are tied for third in the Big East with No. 1 Pitt and lead the league in scoring (80 ppg). Williams, who replaced Tom Crean after he left for Indiana, is a national Coach of the Year candidate.

"They're the type of team that if they see the crack in the door," said Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez, "they kick that door open."

But how well Marquette does in the NCAA Tournament largely depends on if it recovers from the loss of James with a broken bone in his left foot. James' injury comes at a time when Marquette (23-5, 12-3) faces a wicked final stretch with road games at No. 6 Louisville on Sunday and No. 1 Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The regular season ends at home March 7 against Syracuse.

James' replacement is Maurice Acker, but if need be Hayward can swing to the backcourt. That's what an X-factor does: fill in the blanks.

"I was always taught it's not how you start, but how you finish," Hayward said. "Hopefully all the hard work that I've put into this season will pay off."

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You had to figure Memphis would suffer after losing NBA draft picks Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey. Instead, the Tigers (25-3, 13-0 Conference USA) extended their conference winning streak to 55 games, the third-longest league win streak in Division I history. Memphis took off when freshman Tyreke Evans was moved from shooting guard to the point. Quietly he may be having a better first-year season than Rose, who was the top pick last year.

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The rich get richer. North Carolina has commitments from four players who were named to the McDonald's All-American Team, the most of any school in the country. The Tar Heels remain in the running for two more top players: small forward Glenn Bryant of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and point guard Akeem Richmond of Southern Lee High in North Carolina. Signing Bryant and Richmond would give the Tar Heels arguably the best haul of recruits this decade.

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This is the 25th anniversary of Georgetown's 1984 national championship, and to celebrate the Hoyas may find themselves in the NIT. After a blowout loss this week at home to Louisville, Georgetown (14-12, 5-10 Big East) has lost eight of 10. The Hoyas play at Villanova today and then league bottom feeders St. John's and DePaul before the Big East Tournament. Georgetown's strength of schedule is No. 2 in the country but its RPI is 48, which means the Hoyas probably need to win the Big East Tournament to land an NCAA bid.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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>Tip-ins

Another coach who should garner Coach of the Year honors is LSU's Trent Johnson. The Tigers (24-4, 11-1 Southeastern Conference) have won nine straight and have an 11-win improvement from 2007-08, the most of any BCS school.

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The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference had a good showing in last weekend's BracketBuster, going 6-4, including wins by Niagara and Canisius. The University at Buffalo's loss at Vermont was part of a 4-8 showing for the Mid-American Conference.

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Providence (17-11, 9-7 Big East) certainly strengthened its NCAA resume with this week's upset over No. 1 ranked Pitt. The Friars' last victory over a top-ranked team was a double-overtime win against Michigan in 1976. The point guard for Providence in that game was former East High and Bishop Neumann star Dwight Williams.

--Rodney McKissic

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