MILWAUKEE - It's no secret that Villanova's basketball team prefers to play through its backcourt. The approach has served Jay Wright's Wildcats well.

Marquette lives along the perimeter, too. Not only do the Golden Eagles have some serious talent out there, it's experienced.

It makes a difference.

Yesterday at the Bradley Center, their starting senior trio of Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal proved to be a little too much for the Wildcats to deal with in the Big East opener for both teams. It won't be the last time those guys have that kind of impact, in a conference that's locked and loaded.

"They'd actually be fun to watch, if you didn't have to play against them," Wright said, following his club's 79-72 loss. "Veteran guards win college basketball games, if they're big time.

"Maybe if you had studs who could guard all of them one-on-one, but I don't know anyone that does."

The trio was averaging 47 points per game. This time, it finished with 60, 35 in the second half. The 15th-ranked Wildcats (12-2, 0-1) were down by only one with 6 minutes to go, after trailing by nine 10 minutes earlier. Matthews, son of the former Sixers guard Wes Matthews, then swished an open jumper from the left wing. After a turnover, he made a tough turnaround 10-footer from the same side. After an offensive foul, McNeal buried a trey from straightaway at 3:58.

And it was pretty much game over.

"That's the type of way we want to play all the time," said McNeal, who had 24 points and seven assists in 37 minutes, on 7-for-14 shooting (4-for-8 from the arc). "We got a tad bit too sloppy, so we've got to improve on that. For the most part, we did a great job of keeping our poise.

"With all the games we've played, we've been in just about every situation you can think of. We know the most important thing is to focus on what your team does best. Nobody ever gets rattled. You go on to the next play. We know Villanova has some really good guards, as well. So we were on a mission."

Matthews, who went 9-for-10 at the foul line, scored 19 on only 5-for-6 shooting. James had 17, on 6-for-16. He also had five of Marquette's 19 turnovers, which matched its season high. Forward Lazar Hayward also reached double figures in points, with 15.

McNeal had nine of Marquette's last 10 points of the first half, including a buzzer-beater from the foul line, to give the Eagles (12-1, 1-0) a 36-32 lead. Matthews had 16 after the break.

"What makes them special is their character," said first-year Marquette coach Buzz Williams, who took over when Tom Crean left to try to resurrect Indiana. "When you've been through the Big East three times, you are not caught off guard by anything."

Villanova, which visits Seton Hall on Tuesday, got 21 off the bench from sophomore guard Corey Fisher, who tied a career best with 24 in Monday's home win over Temple. Forward Dante Cunningham, the team's top scorer, almost reached his 16.9 average, with 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting, to go with eight rebounds. Scottie Reynolds had 15, but missed 11 of his 15 shots. He also had four turnovers (three of them offensive fouls) and only one assist, before he and Cunningham both drew their fifth personals in the final minute.

Corey Stokes scored 10, but half came in the closing 35 seconds. And Antonio Pena, the Wildcats' other big man, was on the court for only 7 minutes because of foul issues. At least he managed to grab four boards.

"We obviously have to play more solid offensively," Wright said. "We've got to get better at getting Dante the ball more. Scottie's going to start making more shots. [Fisher's contributions] come as no surprise. And he's starting to play defense better, which really helps."

This is the third straight year the Wildcats opened conference play with a loss. Each was on the road. Their first Big East home game is Jan. 10, when Louisville comes to the Wachovia Center. This was the first of 10 games against teams currently in the top 27. Five of them will either be at the Pavilion or in South Philadelphia.

The Golden Eagles, who visit the Main Line on Feb. 10, have now won three straight in this series.

"I came out just trying to be more aggressive," said Fisher, the only Wildcat to miss a free throw. "I got it going early, and kept trying to score and get open baskets for my teammates.

"They've got great guards, and a great team. They play together."

The Wildcats, who turned it over 16 times, had not allowed more than 68 (to both Fordham and Navy). Marquette did get its last 13 at the line, on 14 tries.

All eight Wildcats who played had an assist. Only three had two. All but Dwayne Anderson was credited with at least one giveaway.

"It came down to getting stops at the end, being tougher," Cunningham said. "As a senior class, it always starts with us. If something's going wrong, we have to look at ourselves, what we didn't do."

Marquette went 10-for-24 from the arc, 5-for-11 after intermission, two games after Navy converted 14 of its first 24.

"It's a long season," Wright said. "In this league, you can't let one loss turn into two."

See you in North Jersey. *