Published Friday, January 31, 2014 at 10:15 pm / Updated at 10:20 pm
BASKETBALL
Big East scrambles to adapt to Bluejays
DePaul at Creighton
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: CenturyLink Center
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 1620 AM KOZN

The first half of their first Big East season has left an impression on the Creighton Bluejays.

Not to mention some bumps and bruises.

“It's a tough league,” forward Ethan Wragge said. “The players are strong and physical, but we've figured out what we can do and what we can't do against this league.

“I think we know what to expect out of ourselves.”

Nine Big East opponents also have learned what to expect from the Bluejays, and not all of it had been anticipated. Just about everyone knew before the season that Creighton possessed a gifted offense led by two-time All-American Doug McDermott.

What has surprised some league rivals is the Bluejays' ability to play defense and rebound with bigger, stronger opponents. Creighton is tied for the league lead in scoring defense and stands second in rebounding margin.

“They are very cohesive and play as a unit,” St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. “Their tenaciousness helps them offset their lack of size. Their defense is more pack-oriented, and that limits your dribble penetration some.

“They'll give you some jump shots, but they're pretty stingy about allowing you points in the paint.”

Lavin's team dropped a 63-60 decision to Creighton on Tuesday as the Bluejays wrapped up the first half of their 18-game conference season with an 8-1 record. That assured them of starting the second half of league play Friday against DePaul with at least a share of first place.

The fast start has exceeded expectations — Creighton was picked third in the preseason — but it doesn't shock McDermott.

“I knew we could get off to a start like this,” he said. “We all did, but it's definitely going to be a challenge this next run through because everyone is going to be coming at us.

“We're the new guys in the conference and they're going to want another crack at us. ''

Providence was the only team to beat Creighton in the first half of the league season. And the Bluejays have won in a variety of ways.

They never trailed in their league opener against Marquette, holding the Golden Eagles to 49 points and limiting them to 34.5 percent shooting from the field.

Creighton won when its star player had a so-so game (Georgetown) and when he's been nothing short of spectacular (Xavier, St. John's). The Bluejays humbled then-fourth-ranked Villanova with a shooting display that produced a conference record 21 3-pointers and earned them national acclaim.

And they gutted out a victory over DePaul when McDermott suffered a shoulder injury and Grant Gibbs went down with a dislocated knee. The injury has sidelined Gibbs for the past six games, but the Bluejays are 5-1 without him.

“If you're going to have a chance to win a conference championship, you're going to have to win every kind of game because you're going to see everything,” coach Greg McDermott said. “It's our goal to stay in the hunt, but it's not going to be easy.”

Overall, the competition Creighton has faced in its move from the Missouri Valley to the Big East has been about what McDermott expected. The coach got a sneak peek last March at many of his new league opponents when his team was preparing to play former Big East member Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament.

“We watched a lot of these teams on film, so I don't think it's much different than what I anticipated it would be,” McDermott said. “We play against teams with length and athleticism in every single game. I don't think you ever become accustomed to that, because we don't have a lot of that in practice.

“Our guys have adjusted to that pretty well. It's still basketball. I think teams that are unselfish and move the ball and work for a great shot are always going to have a chance to win.”

Creighton's transition to its new league has been aided by a wealth of experience. Gibbs, Wragge, Doug McDermott, Jahnenns Manigat, Austin Chatman, Will Artino and Avery Dingman have been in the program for at least three seasons.

Gibbs is a sixth-year senior, while Wragge is in his fifth season. McDermott and Manigat are four-year starters, while Chatman is in his second season of starting at the all-important point guard spot.

“They know how to play,” Greg McDermott said.

They also know how to shoot, which separates them from many of their rivals.

Creighton leads the nation in 3-point shooting (percentage, baskets made and attempts). Three Bluejays — Wragge, Manigat and McDermott — rank in the top four in the league in 3-point percentage.

Wragge leads the Big East in 3-point percentage and 3-pointers per game. Despite the fact that he has taken six shots inside the arc, Wragge also stands 10th in field-goal percentage at .491.

After his team got buried by Creighton's record-setting 3-point barrage, Villanova coach Jay Wright said he was impressed by the speed at which the Bluejays attack. It's not something that teams new to Creighton can necessarily pick up just by watching videotape.

“The speed at which they come at you and the way they move the ball is hard to overcome,” Wright said. “And when you let a good-shooting team get hot, you're in trouble.”

Greg McDermott has created a matchup nightmare for opposing teams by pairing his son and Wragge at power forward and center. Wragge's perimeter skills have pulled opposing big men away from the basket, opening driving lanes for McDermott and other teammates.

McDermott's score-from-anywhere ability has left him the target of double teams, which in turn opens things up for the perimeter shooting of Wragge, Manigat and others.

After his team dropped a 13-point decision to Creighton last Saturday, Georgetown coach John Thompson III touched on the difficulty of trying to defend a team that has what he called the best player in the country (McDermott) and the best shooter in the country (Wragge).

“I don't think you can game-plan for that,” Thompson said.

At least Thompson and other Big East coaches will go into games against Creighton in the second half of the conference season with a little better feel for what to expect.

There is no question the Jays benefited by being new kids on the block.

“It's hard for other teams to stick their scout team players out on the perimeter and do what Ethan and Doug can do,” Greg McDermott said. “Until you see it, it's different. We can cause some problems because our offense is unique and the pieces of our puzzle are unique.

“We've inverted our offense to where our big guys are out on the floor as much as they are inside. It's something you don't see every day, and it's made us be pretty effective and efficient.”

Creighton and Villanova, which could move into a first-place tie with a win over Xavier on Monday, figure to start the second half of league play with the biggest targets on their backs.

That's a position Greg McDermott said he never envisioned after one trip through the league. The success the Bluejays have enjoyed to this point, Manigat said, makes them hungry for more.

“We understand that we're not unbeatable,” he said. “We have to come out every day with the idea that we're going to get better defensively, that we're going to be more crisp offensively, and see how good a team we can really be.”

Contact the writer: Steven Pivovar

stevepivovar@hotmail.com    |   402-679-2298    |  

Steven Pivovar is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and primarily covers Creighton athletics and the College World Series.

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