Published Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 10:48 pm / Updated at 10:54 pm
BASKETBALL
Bluejays pass a big-time litmus test
Seton Hall at Creighton
When: 4:02 p.m. Sunday
Where: CenturyLink Center
TV: FSN
Radio: 1620 AM KOZN

Marquette figured to be the team Creighton was most likely to fail against in its first season of Big East competition.

The Golden Eagles had size and strength up front, attributes that had given past Creighton teams fits. The backcourt was loaded with long, athletic players. Factor in the confidence the returning players gained from a trip to the 2013 Elite Eight, and Marquette looked to be quite a handful for a Creighton team making a jump from the mid-major ranks.

It was the Bluejays, though, who wound up owning the regular-season series, posting an 18-point win in their conference debut at home and following it up with Wednesday's 85-70 thumping at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

Creighton coach Greg McDermott doesn't understate the value of the victories.

“We have tremendous respect for Marquette,'' McDermott said. “Their tradition of success speaks for itself, and we aspire to be what they have been in this league for a number of years.

“They've been a good team, they've been to a lot of Sweet 16s, they're very well coached, they play with toughness. For us to gut out a couple of wins against a physical team like Marquette is a feather in the cap of our program.''

Since joining the old Big East nine seasons ago, Marquette was the only team to finish with a .500 record or better in league play each season. The Golden Eagles also were the only program to advance to at least the conference tournament quarterfinals each year.

Marquette and Georgetown were supposed to be the bullies of the reconstituted Big East, and were picked one-two in the preseason. Both have disappointed, with Wednesday's loss to Creighton dropping the Golden Eagles to 7-6 in the league and 15-11 overall.

Georgetown took a 6-7 record into Thursday's game against Seton Hall. The Hoyas are 15-10 overall and a challenging schedule in the stretch run could stress their chances of finishing .500 or better in league play.

Meanwhile, Creighton sits atop the standings with a 12-2 record and is 22-4 overall. If the 11th-ranked Bluejays can continue winning, they will be a strong candidate for a top three seed in next month's NCAA tournament.

That was one reason winning on Marquette's home court was so important, forward Ethan Wragge said.

“We're a big-picture team,'' said Wragge, who made 6 of 8 3-point shots and scored 22 points in the win. “We weren't going to be satisfied with the win in Omaha. We knew we were going to get their best shot, and they had been playing good basketball lately.

“I'm proud of the way we kept our composure against them.''

Creighton was in control from the start in the first meeting in Omaha. The Bluejays blew out to a 15-6 lead, held a 37-24 advantage at halftime and won 67-49.

The Golden Eagles were more competitive in the rematch and were still within five points of the Bluejays with 71⁄2 minutes to play. Creighton then landed the knockout punch, riding a 15-3 run over the next four minutes.

Doug McDermott had seven of his 25 points in the decisive spurt.

“He's a good player,'' Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “He's in constant movement, knows how to get fouled, knows how to force a switch, he's very aware of how teams are guarding him and how that impacts the other four guys on his team

“Whether he gets a touch, the pressure that he causes leads to practice shots for the other kids on his team.''

Williams' own team struggles to make shots any night but definitely had difficulty keeping up with Creighton's offensive machine in both of the losses. The Golden Eagles converted just 35.8 percent of their field-goal attempts in losing in Omaha.

They managed to improve to 46.2 percent in the rematch but allowed Creighton to shoot 62.2 percent from the field. In addition to the edge they built on the defensive end, the Bluejays also outrebounded Marquette in the first meeting (38-36) and finished even on the boards (29-29) in Wednesday's game.

Outperforming Marquette in two areas of the game that generally are considered measures of toughness was gratifying, Greg McDermott said.

“Our guys battle,'' he said. “We're undersized but we don't lack heart.''

No Bluejay has had to battle more this season than Wragge, who took over the starting center spot eight games into the season. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Wragge often finds himself matched up against bigger, stronger opponents.

He spent much of Wednesday battling 6-11, 275-pound Chris Otule and 6-8, 290-pound Davante Gardner. Wragge's teammates have pointed to his ability to hold his own in the inside sparring as one of the reasons Creighton ranks among the league's top defensive teams.

Grant Gibbs said Wragge's defensive play inspires the rest of the players to do their jobs. Wragge sees things in a slightly different light.

“I think our team knows that they can't leave me on an island,'' he said. “That gets everyone flying around and moving and doing a great job of covering my tail. It gets our whole team engaged defensively, and when we're engaged, we're better defensively than we have been.''

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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