Published Monday, February 17, 2014 at 12:01 am / Updated at 1:02 am
Defense gets notice from Bluejay foes

Villanova shot 46 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range while scoring 80 points Sunday against Creighton.

Good numbers but not good enough to keep the Wildcats from getting beat by 21 points. Afterward, Villanova coach Jay Wright lavished praise on Creighton's offensive abilities but then threw in the following kicker.

“You don't judge defense by how many points you give up or the field-goal percentage,'' Wright said. “I judge it by how it relates to how you want to play the game, and they're as good as anyone in our league at that.”

Wright went on to say how Creighton's defensive philosophy is a perfect complement to its high-scoring offense. The Bluejays do a great job of helping out on the defensive end, Wright said. Creighton makes opponents take the shots it wants them to take rather than the one opponents want to take.

And despite being overmatched physically inside, Ethan Wragge, Doug McDermott and the other Creighton big men are adept at compensating with toughness.

“They fight you,'' Wright said. “They don't give you position.''

Wright is not the first Big East coach this season to praise Creighton's defense. After his team lost to the Bluejays, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard compared Creighton to Georgetown, which often times has been the gold standard for defense in the league.

St. John's coach Steve Lavin, who is blessed with some of the best athletes in the league, also had kind words for the Bluejays after a late January loss in Omaha.

“I like their tenacity,'' Lavin said. “They are very cohesive and play as a unit. Their tenaciousness helps them offset their lack of size.''

Hearing opposing coaches gush about the Bluejays' defensive abilities brings a smile to Creighton senior guard Jahenns Manigat's face. He remembers two seasons ago, when the Bluejays ranked in the bottom third nationally in the major defensive statistical categories.

“Two-hundred-twenty-two, right?'' said Manigat, referring to Creighton's rank in field-goal percentage defense that season. Coach Greg McDermott last season had that number plastered on the team's practice jerseys and shorts as a means to provide a constant reminder for the need to improve on the defensive end.

“We're the same core guys that two years ago no one talked about how we were a decent defensive team,'' Manigat said. “I think you can see the individual and the collective improvement. We're never going to be the best one-on-one stoppers, but individually we've gotten better every single year.

“It's satisfying to see our defensive numbers improve, and now to get complimented by others is really the cherry on top.''

Creighton heads into Wednesday's game at Marquette ranked 73rd nationally in scoring defense (66.2 points per game), 66th in field-goal percentage defense (.410) and 143rd in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (33.7).

Two seasons ago, the Bluejays' national rankings were 242nd in scoring defense (69.7), 222nd in field-goal percentage defense (.441) and 264th in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.361).

“I think we've improved as our individual defenders have improved,'' McDermott said.

But Creighton's improvement has been as much about adapting the team's offensive philosophy to the defensive end as it's been that its players have just become better defenders. The Bluejays' unselfishness has helped Creighton become one of the nation's most efficient offenses the past three seasons.

“It's something we've struggled with,'' Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “We have this continuity with our offense in that we're always making the extra pass but on the defensive end, everyone was kind of selfish.

“We were all concerned about making sure our man didn't score. For whatever reasons, we've been able to carry the offensive end over to the defensive end in that we're always trying to cover our man while still trying to be in position to help a teammate. For some reason, it's really clicked this year.''

Two-thirds of the way through the conference season, Creighton ranks second among league teams in scoring defense, third in field-goal percentage defense and fifth in 3-point percentage defense. In league games only, the Bluejays' standings in those statistical categories are first, second and sixth.

Creighton relies as much as any team in the Big East on thorough scouting. McDermott is big on playing the percentages in putting together a game plan. The Bluejays know which players to play off of and which players to double team.

“We're not a team that is going to block shots or get a ton of steals,'' Manigat said. “At the same time, we try to force people into rushed shots that create rebound opportunities for us.

“Once we get a rebound, we're able to get up the floor. Getting stops on the defensive end allows us to play at the pace we want to play at. In that regard, our defense fits our offense. ''

Gibbs credits Manigat for “leading the charge” that has fostered a willingness to share the load on defense.

“Sometimes it gets him in trouble because he's trying to cover up too much,'' Gibbs said. “But he has had a profound impact on the rest of us.

“We're still a work in progress on defense but we're doing a better job with it. It's about making guys go to their second options. If a guy is good at catch and shoot, we're going to try to make him beat us driving to the hoop or vice versa.''

Gibbs also credits Wragge for helping instill a toughness into the Bluejays. The 6-foot-7 senior spent most of the past four seasons on the perimeter but has moved inside this season to become Creighton's starting center.

“Ethan has done an admirable job against guys that are a lot stronger and more athletic,'' Gibbs said. “He's down in the trenches fighting for every rebound and boxing out. Ethan's effort down there and his ability to fight every night have inspired other people.

“It's like he's taking on guys bigger and stronger than him, so everyone needs to do their jobs and box out and secure rebounds.''

CU ranks fourth in the Big East in rebounding margin (plus-2.6) but leads the league in defensive rebounds at 26.5 per game. That's a number that Greg McDermott is particularly proud of, one that he said illustrates the toughness that Wright sees in the Bluejays.

“We're the top defensive rebounding team in the Big East, and we haven't taken a rebound above the rim all season,'' McDermott said. “You better have a little fight in you if that's going to transpire. We have games where if the contact isn't what we need it to be and if it becomes a jumping contest, we're going to lose

“That's happened a few games and it's going to happen. But for the most part, our guys have dug in and fought. There's some toughness to those guys. To me, toughness is being disciplined enough to know what needs to be done and then doing it with intensity and energy. Our guys are good at doing that.''

Contact the writer: Steven Pivovar    |   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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