Creighton's much-awaited meeting with Wisconsin on Friday shapes up as a basketball battle of wills.
It's the defensive-minded Badgers against the running and gunning Bluejays in the semifinals of the Las Vegas Invitational. Conventional wisdom says the team that can impose its will on the other will likely emerge with the victory.
“Obviously, we want to speed it up and they want to slow it down,'' Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “It could be kind of a push-and-pull matchup in regard to the pace of the game.''
Things are never quite that simple, at least in Creighton coach Greg McDermott's mind. For sure, the Badgers excel at defense — they led the nation in scoring defense last season and have allowed this season's four opponents to average 51 points a game. That average includes a 74-point outburst that Nos. 7 and 8 Florida used to post an 18-point win over the Badgers.
But McDermott quickly notes Wisconsin is adept at playing on the other end of the floor, too.
“Wisconsin isn't walking the ball up the floor,'' McDermott said. “They're going to work for a good shot, and if that takes 30 seconds, then so be it.
“But if they can get a good shot in the first 10, they'll take it.''
Wisconsin's offense has produced an average of 76 points heading into Friday's 9 p.m. game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. Creighton, ranked 12th and 14th in the national polls, has averaged 85 points in winning its first four games by a margin of 28.5 points per game.
Creighton ranks second nationally in points per possession (1.27) and in points per shot (1.36). Wisconsin is tied for 14th at 1.17 points per possession.
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In starting 3-1, Wisconsin has limited its opponents to 38.3 percent field-goal shooting. The four opponents have shot 32.1 percent from 3-point range.
“They're so hard to score quickly against because they get their defense set,'' McDermott said. “They cover up for each other's mistakes very well, and they're very fundamental in their approach.
“It's hard to score in 10 or 15 seconds. You have to work the clock sometimes to get the shot that you want. That's part of the reason they've consistently been one of the better defensive teams in the country the last decade.''
Under Bo Ryan, the Badgers have finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense in eight of the past 10 seasons. Wisconsin has not allowed an average of 60 points per game in any of the past six seasons.
“They play tremendous defense,'' Gibbs said. “It's really a change of gears to play a team like that. We have to value each possession and, defensively, really be in tune with the scouting report if we're going to give them a game.''
The jury remains out on whether Creighton's offseason emphasis on its own defense will produce the desired results. Early indicators are promising — four overmatched opponents are averaging just 56.5 points and shooting 36.8 percent from the field.
“We still have some holes in our ability to guard the ball at some positions, and we try to cover that up as best we can,'' McDermott said. “There's been improvement, and there is still room to grow. I've definitely seen some strides.''
The Bluejays are tied for 30th nationally in points per possession allowed (0.82). A season ago, Creighton allowed 1.01 points per possession and ranked 201st nationally.
The winner of the Creighton-Wisconsin game will play either Arkansas or Arizona State in Saturday's championship game. The semifinal losers will meet at 7 p.m., with the title game set for 10 p.m.
Creighton will be looking to win its fifth in-season tournament. The Bluejays won the Guardians Classic in 2002 and 2004, the Las Vegas Classic in 2008 and the Dale Howard Classic last season.
Creighton defeated Presbyterian and Longwood in its first two tournament games that closed the Bluejays' season-opening home stand.
“We accomplished what we wanted to in these four games,'' McDermott said, “but things are going to get tougher this weekend.''
NOTES: Wisconsin and Creighton have played just once, with the Badgers winning the 1949 contest at Madison. … The Bluejays are 9-5 in their first game away from home the past 14 seasons, including a 3-1 mark when the contest is played on a neutral court. … Creighton forward Ethan Wragge is shooting 63.6 percent (14 of 22) from 3-point range. Wragge ranks second on the team with an 11.8 scoring average. … McDermott has led the Bluejays to 4-0 starts in two of his three seasons as coach. Thomas Mills is the only other Creighton coach with two 4-0 starts in his first three seasons (1916-17 and 1917-18).
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