NEWARK, N.J. — Creighton players have grown accustomed to hearing opponents say nice things about their offensive skills.
It’s rare, though, to hear the kind of praise Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard shoveled on CU for its defensive prowess after the Bluejays rolled to a 79-66 victory over the Pirates Saturday at Prudential Center. Willard offered that Creighton is above average on defense, then got cranked up when asked to explain his comment.
“For guys that aren’t overly quick or fast, they play position and they play the basketball,” Willard said. “It’s hard to score on them. They show their hands and they bump you low, which the refs don’t call. In post defense, they do a good job of doubling and coming after you. They don’t give you anything easy.”
Willard then tacked on the kicker: “To be honest with you, they remind me of the way Georgetown plays defense.”
Willard has a sly sense of humor, but he wasn’t fishing for a punch line. The Hoyas have long been the gold standard for defensive intensity in the Big East.
Georgetown’s defense overwhelms opponents with its athleticism, one reason Willard’s comparison with Creighton had Bluejay players raising their eyebrows.
“Traditionally, good defensive teams have someone that can bail guys out when they make mistakes,” guard Jahenns Manigat said. “We can’t make many mistakes because we don’t have that.”
What the Bluejays have is a growing sense of pride that their long hours of work on defensive fundamentals are starting to pay off. Two seasons ago, Creighton ranked among the bottom third in Division I in most key defensive categories.
The Bluejays made major strides defensively last season and, while their numbers might not totally reflect it, they appear intent on continuing their improvement.
“We’ve worked our tails off this offseason trying to get better on defense,” senior forward Doug McDermott said. “We know that we can score with anyone in the country, but the defensive end is a much different story. We’re doing a much better job of just sticking the principles and locking in on the game plan.”
When told of Willard’s Georgetown comment, McDermott smiled, then added, “Don’t tell my dad he said that.”
Creighton coach Greg McDermott, constantly pushing his players for defensive improvement, dodged Willard’s comparison.
“I haven’t watched much Georgetown film yet,” he said with a chuckle.
He has watched plenty of videotape of his own team. He said he thought the Bluejays were decent on defense last season, and he likes the effort his players are giving at that end of the court this season.
“We don’t force a bunch of turnovers or block a lot of shots, and people sometimes translate that into: ‘you must not be a very good defensive team,’” McDermott said. “To me, defense is making the other team shoot the shots you want them to take instead of the ones they want to take, and then trying to make sure that they only get one shot.
“For the most part, we do a pretty good job of doing that.”
Creighton has held nine of 14 opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the field this season. The Bluejays are fifth in the Big East in field-goal percentage defense (.405), and they also stand fifth in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.324).
They are third, behind Georgetown and Xavier, in scoring defense (63.9 points per game) and rebounding margin (plus-5.9). The Bluejays do lead the league in defensive rebounding (27.2 per game), meaning opponents are getting limited opportunities for second-chance points.
“We lack the ability to erase mistakes, and that’s where we’re probably different than Georgetown,” Greg McDermott said. “But I’d like to think we’re in the right places most of the time, and we try to take away transition baskets and make sure our opponents only get one shot.
“Those are the things that are more important to me than how many steals you get. Our offensive rebounding numbers aren’t high because our transition defense is more of a priority than offensive rebounds. That all kind of goes together.”
Creighton is last in the league in steals (4.9 per game) and blocked shots (2.1). The Bluejays tend to steer clear of gambling on defense in favor of adhering to safer, sounder principles.
They spend a good deal of practice time focusing on close-outs, rotations and filling gaps. Drill after drill is designed to strengthen team defensive principles rather than producing flashy individual results.
“Our coaching staff focuses a lot on the fundamentals of defense because we don’t have freak athletes like other teams have,” Manigat said. “But I think what we’re doing is becoming natural for us. We jump to the ball, protect each other’s back, protect the gaps. We know there is going to be a game down the line that we’re going to need a big defensive stop to win, and the more we work on it, the better it is for us in the long run.”
Creighton players also spend countless hours studying videotape and scouting reports.
“We have to know the other teams’ sets and tendencies,” guard Grant Gibbs said. “To a man, I think we’re doing a good job of dialing in on that.
“We know we have to own the little breaks in the game. Collectively, we have good basketball IQs and understand teams’ tendencies and sets. We can see it all coming together.”