Creighton's preseason proclamations trumpeting a new and improved defense likely raised a few eyebrows.
That was the same company line the Bluejays carried into last season, but they often found themselves having to outscore opponents when they couldn't get stops on the defensive end.
Creighton managed to win 29 games despite ranking in the bottom third nationally in three key defensive statistical categories.
Although this season is but 10 games old, it appears the Bluejays are doing more than just talking the talk when it comes to defense. They rank in the top third nationally in those same statistical categories, and outsiders are taking notice.
“They're much more defensive-oriented than the last time we played them,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot after Creighton avenged a 2011 loss to the Zips with Sunday's 77-61 win. “I thought the last time we played them they were just mediocre defensively. Now, they seem to be trying much harder, and they have a good plan.”
California coach Mike Montgomery agrees.
“They are better defensively,” said Montgomery, whose Golden Bears host Creighton on Saturday. “At the same time, they still have the capability to score a lot of points.”
With nine of his top 10 players back from a team that finished 10th nationally in scoring last season, Creighton coach Greg McDermott didn't want to change who the Bluejays were. Still, McDermott knew he had to find a way to put more teeth in the defense if Creighton wanted to play deeper into March.
The Bluejays focused on defense during the limited summer sessions they had with the coaches. That continued once preseason practice started in the fall.
The result? Consider some of the numbers:
>> Creighton finished last season ranked 222nd nationally in field-goal percentage defense (.441), 242nd in scoring defense (69.7 points per game) and 264th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.361). This season, the Bluejays are 101st in field-goal percentage defense (.400), tied for 80th in scoring defense (61.0 points per game) and 67th in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.294).
>> Only one team, Boise State, has shot better than 43.4 percent against the Creighton, and five of the 10 opponents finished below 40 percent. Last season, the Bluejays allowed 16 of 35 opponents to shoot 45 percent or better and held just 10 teams under 40 percent shooting.
>> Creighton finished 201st nationally in points per possession (1.010) last season. The Bluejays are 52nd this season, allowing 0.887 points per possession.
>> Creighton has held seven of its 10 opponents to 61 points or fewer compared to 10 of 35 opponents last season.
“I think we've made a couple of steps in the right direction,” Creighton guard Jahenns Manigat said. “It's showing on the floor and on the scoreboard.”
The Bluejays did turn in a clunker of a defensive effort in their Nov. 28 home loss to Boise State. Creighton allowed the Broncos to shoot over its defense in the first half (nine 3-point baskets) and drive through it in the final 20 minutes.
Boise State shot 60.4 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from 3-point range in scoring an 83-70 upset.
“The Boise game really opened up our eyes,” Manigat said, “and showed us that we're not all there yet.”
What it also did, several of his teammates said, was reinforce the importance of following the scouting report prepared by the coaches.
“Since the Boise game, when we really got out-executed and didn't stick with our game plan, we've turned up our attention to detail,” guard Grant Gibbs said. “A lot of it is really buying into the coaches' game plan and doing the things they've set forth for us to be successful.”
Since the Boise State debacle, Creighton has held its opponents to 51, 42 and 61 points. Collectively, St. Joseph's, Nebraska and Akron have shot 37.3 percent from the field (62 of 166) and 24.6 percent from 3-point range (16 of 61).
The Bluejays allowed the leading scorer from the opposing team to register a career-high total in six of their first seven games. They allowed back-to-back 30-point games to Arizona State's Jahii Carson (30) and Boise's Derrick Marks (35).
In the past three games, no opponent has scored more than 14 points against Creighton. St. Joseph's Carl Jones, who had 29 points against the Bluejays a season ago, finished with half of his 18-point scoring average. Creighton held Akron's leading scorer, Alex Abreu, seven points under his 12-point average.
“In the last three games, it's been about trying to take away people's strengths,” Gibbs said. “You have to make them score with their second and third options.”
Akron's Dambrot agrees that the Bluejays are now playing with more “want-to” on the defensive end.
“I think they're trying harder,” he said. “It's about good kids with good coaches looking themselves in the mirror and deciding where they need to improve if they want to make the next step. They have a lot of high-character guys.
“You can tell they've emphasized getting better defensively. You can see they know if they want to take the next step and make it further in the NCAA tournament, they're going to have to guard better.”
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