MILWAUKEE (AP) - When Marquette's Dominic James was asked if his Golden Eagles were now favorites in an injury-plagued Big East, he dropped to the floor and knocked on wood.
Bright yellow hardwood.
The energetic point guard knows No. 10 Marquette (10-1) is good, but with the team starting Big East play against Providence on Thursday, he refused to say anything that other teams could use as bulletin-board fodder.
``We can't get caught up in who's favorites, and things like that,'' James said. ``The depth that we've had the beginning of the year, I feel like that's big. We're happy with the team that we have and our health, things like that.''
But guard Jerel McNeal says that Marquette has a good opportunity for a quick start in a conference race that includes four teams ranked in this week's Top 25, starting with No. 7 Georgetown.
``Injuries happen,'' McNeal said. ``Every team is going to experience it throughout the course of the season, but I think this is definitely a point in time right now in our conference that we could definitely step up and make some real big strides and come in, hopefully get a demanding conference lead and get a step closer to a conference championship.''
Several Big East opponents have been slowed by key injuries, including Pittsburgh (Levance Fields, Mike Cook), Syracuse (Eric Devendorf, Andy Rautins) and Louisville (David Padgett, Juan Palacios).
Providence (9-3) also has had problems in the backcourt, with point guard Sharaud Curry still ailing from a foot injury and backup Dwain Williams day-to-day because of a bruised ankle.
``I'm trying to take advantage of it,'' said James, who is averaging a team-high 14.8 points and 4.2 assists. ``We've got a great backcourt here and you know that we're a guard-oriented team. Any way we can, we're going to try to take advantage of them.''
Marquette is getting healthier at the right time. Forward Dan Fitzgerald (sprained left wrist) and guard David Cubillan (sprained left ankle) both returned to action last week.
To stop the Friars, Marquette will have to figure out how to contain 6-8 forward Geoff McDermott and 6-10 center Randall Hanke. McDermott is averaging 11.6 points and 7.6 rebounds and was a rebound shy of a triple-double in his first matchup with the Golden Eagles last season. Providence won, 74-59.
Marquette coach Tom Crean called Marquette's 0-2 conference start last season a total aberration. During a workout last Jan. 1, guards Wesley Matthews and McNeal bumped heads during a rebounding drill and had to go to the hospital as a precaution.
``A year ago today, we're visiting Jerel and Wesley in the hospital. A year ago yesterday, we're in a situation where Jerel McNeal couldn't speak for three hours, four hours. We had a heck of a 2007 considering the way it started,'' Crean said.
Marquette rebounded with a long winning streak and a 24-10 record before losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
``We know coming into this year you don't want to come out early and get yourself in a big hole,'' McNeal said. ``Last year, we started off 0-2, we had to win eight in a row just to get back in the race for the conference championship.''
The Golden Eagles also have the luxury of playing at home against the Friars. Marquette is 13-3 in conference play at home since joining the Big East in 2005-06, beginning with an upset of then-No. 2 Connecticut two seasons ago at the Bradley Center.
``You want to start off the Big East with a win and start from there,'' James said. ``This is what we've been working for. This is where you stake your claim ... Our No. 1 goal is to win the Big East championship and this is where it starts.''

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