By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Mar 02, 2008 at 5:29 AM

For the last three years, the trio of Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal has helped elevate No. 21 Marquette into a perennial Big East Conference power and has firmly planted the Golden Eagles in the national spotlight.

Solid guard play that forms the basis for head coach Tom Crean's system and these three have lived up to the billing. They can run, they can shoot, they can score and they can defend.

What hasn't come quite as easily, however, is a similar presence inside.

Not since Robert Jackson, whose abilities and contributions to Marquette's 2003 Final Four run are often overshadowed by a guy named Dwyane Wade, have the Golden Eagles had a reliable and powerful presence in the paint.

By design, a majority of the team's offense comes from the guards on the perimeter or off the break ,so it's not too unusual for the Golden Eagles to be outscored in the paint. With an emphasis on the jumper, rebounding takes on added importance. This season, Marquette is 12th in the league with 35.7 rebounds per game and 10th with 12.8 offensive boards.

The Golden Eagles have done an admirable job with the personnel on hand. Senior Ousmane Barrow has recovered from a midseason swoon and fellow senior Dwight Burke has shown the ability to step up when it counts.

In a 70-68 overtime loss to Georgetown Saturday afternoon, Barro (6-foot-10) started alongside 6-6 forward Lazar Hayward. Barro made both of his shots and ended up with just one rebound. Hayward had a rougher outing, shooting 0-for-8 from the field, missing a pair of free throws and finishing with five rebounds.

"He was on the court in winning time, and he's a big-time player for us," Crean said. "It certainly wasn't a game that he'll put in the scrapbook, but at the same time he's capable of a lot more, and I think he'll bounce back in a big way."

What made things harder for Hayward and company was the task of defending the Hoyas' 7-foot-2-inch all-conference center, Roy Hibbert.

Hibbert, who scored 24 points against Marquette when the teams met a year ago, scored 20 points with six rebounds Saturday. Marquette got physical on him, playing man-to-man most of the game against a player that usually sees zones.

As a result, Hibbert spent a significant portion of the game on the bench with four fouls.

"I thought everybody that came in at the five-position did an excellent job with him," Crean said. "I'd like to think that he earned what he got."

Crean has reason for optimism. Getting Trevor Mbawke into the lineup has provided a boost. The 6-8 freshman forward from St. Paul, Minn. missed the first 23 games of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a fibular collateral ligament sprain.

Mbawke's contributions haven't been earth-shattering -- he is averaging 2.5 points/2 rebounds per game -- but he has shown a willingness to get physical and has displayed some moves that will only improve with time.

In Marquette's 73-64 victory Feb. 20 at St. John's, Mbawke pulled down a team-best seven rebounds, including four on the offensive end while scoring five points.

To the Golden Eagles' credit, it was poor free-throw shooting and not a lack of inside presence that led to their overtime defeat at the Bradley Center.  Still, even though the Golden Eagles have had serviceable options in the post and are carried by the play of their guards, it'll take something more if they want to win their first NCAA Tournament game in five years.