NEW YORK — The country's best player can't wait to see how his act plays at the world's most famous arena.
Doug McDermott, the odds-on favorite to win college basketball's player of the year awards this season, will lead Creighton into Madison Square Garden, site of Sunday night's Big East meeting between St. John's and the No. 12 Bluejays.
“I'm really excited,” McDermott said. “I've never seen the place, to be honest, except on TV. It's going to be a pretty special moment when we walk in there for the first time. I'm sure everyone on the team feels the same way.”
None of McDermott's teammates, except for Grant Gibbs, has ever played at Madison Square Garden. Gibbs played a total of six minutes there as a redshirt freshman for Gonzaga during the 2009-10 season.
“I'm hoping that experience will help us out,” said Gibbs, straining to keep a straight face. “I'll try to tell the guys about the atmosphere and all those sorts of things.”
Creighton has not played a game at the building known as Madison Square Garden since Red McManus took his team to New York for a February 1964 contest against New York University.
The Bluejays pulled out an 88-86 win when Chuck Officer made a 20-foot shot at the buzzer. Fritz Pointer led Creighton with 22 points, while Officer had 21 and Paul Silas chipped in 20 to go along with 22 rebounds.
“For a basketball player, playing in the Garden is the heights,” Pointer said. “That's mecca. It certainly beat playing in South Bend.”
Or Normal, Ill., which is where Creighton was playing a year ago when it was a member of the Missouri Valley. The move to the Big East assures that the Bluejays will play at the Garden at least once a year in the conference tournament.
Regular-season games against St. John's will be scheduled there depending on the building's availability.
The “mecca” that Pointer, Silas and Officer played in no longer exists as it was demolished in 1968. The current arena — the fourth that bears the name Madison Square Garden — was opened in 1968, four years after Creighton coach Greg McDermott was born.
Having never played or coached in the facility, Greg McDermott is just as excited to see the venerable arena as his son. At the same time, he knows any giddiness the Bluejays have about getting to play in the Garden has to be out of their system by the end of Sunday morning's shoot-around.
“It will be nice to get that part of it over,” Greg McDermott said. “I'm sure they'll be in awe of one of the most famous basketball arenas in the United States.”
Come Sunday night, the coach said, the Bluejays had better be ready for business as they are taking on a team that might not only be the conference's most physically gifted but one that is riding a hot streak.
The Red Storm have won five of their past six games, with their only loss coming Jan. 28 when they rallied from an 18-point deficit only to see Doug McDermott bury a game-winning shot in the final seconds of a 63-60 Creighton victory.
St. John's had won its previous three games prior to the meeting with the Bluejays. The Red Storm bounced back with a 15-point victory over preseason favorite Marquette and a 10-point win over Providence to improve to 14-9 and 4-6 in the Big East.
“I think our team has been getting better in all aspects of play since the Georgetown game,” St. John's coach Steve Lavin said after the Providence game. “Starting games, finishing games. Until recently, we were not getting the payoff in the win column.”
The Georgetown game was a 17-point loss in the Red Storm's second conference game. After losing three close games to stand 0-5 in the league, St. John's has posted a nonconference victory over Dartmouth to go along with Big East wins over Seton Hall, Butler, Marquette and Providence.
The lone blemish is the loss to the Bluejays, when the Red Storm fell behind by 18 points but came roaring back to tie the contest.
“Their last 15 minutes against us is right up there with the middle 20 that San Diego State played against us in terms of teams dominating us,” Greg McDermott said. “As a coaching staff, we have two things to look at.
“We got an 18-point lead against them, and how did we do it? We gave up an 18-point lead, and how did they do it and what do we have to do to correct it? After our game, they dominated Marquette and Providence. They've continued to play like the last 15 minutes.”
St. John's got back into the game against Creighton by relying on its athletic talent to force turnovers that it converted into easy baskets. The Red Storm also did an excellent job of taking advantage of second-chance opportunities.
That's a concern, especially with what DePaul did in Friday's 78-66 loss as Creighton returned to action after a nine-day layoff. The Blue Demons outrebounded the Bluejays 41-31 and finished with a 20-9 edge in second-chance points.
Creighton players know they have to get that turned around before Sunday's game.
“We're playing another tough rebounding team on Sunday,” Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said. “Against DePaul, we got a lot of hands on rebounds, but we couldn't get both hands on them.
“We have to get better at that. We have to stay low and fight for our ground. We just have to get in there and fight like we have been doing all year.”
The win over DePaul improved Creighton to 19-3 and allowed the Bluejays to keep a hold on first place in the Big East at 9-1. They are well aware of the challenge that St. John's will present.
“It's difficult for a team to dig itself out of an 0-5 conference start, but we knew we'd have to elevate our level of play with each practice and game opportunity,” Lavin said. “I like the character of this team. We've seen it all season long with the kids' resilient spirit.”