Creighton’s insistence on avoiding complacency has contributed to its early-season success.
The Bluejays came into the season with pretty much a set hand, losing only one player from the regular rotation that produced a school record-tying 29 victories last season. The players knew they had a chance to be very good, and they have been.
Creighton won 11 of its first 12 nonconference games. All 11 wins have come by 10 points or more. The lone loss came on the heels of an inspired pair of efforts that produced victories against power-conference opponents Wisconsin and Arizona State in Las Vegas.
“Sometimes in sports, one of the most difficult things to do is to do what you’re supposed to do,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “Our guys, to this point, have not let the high expectations be a negative. If anything, it’s prepared us to be ready to take everyone’s best shot.
“It takes some maturity to handle this situation. It’s much easier being an underdog with everything to gain and nothing to lose. In reality, we’ve been favored in every game we’ve played. Those expectations can be heavy but we’ve handled it well.”
Creighton’s lone slip came in a Nov. 28 home game against Boise State. The Bluejays lacked energy as they were coming off the grueling wins against Wisconsin and Arizona State. Boise took advantage, building an early lead and never allowing Creighton to get into the game.
The Bluejays managed to close the gap to five with two minutes to play, then let the Broncos score the final eight points in the 83-70 decision.
Three weeks later, Creighton found itself in a similar situation Wednesday against Tulsa. Coming off a trip to the West Coast where they posted a 10-point win at California, the Bluejays again lacked energy at the start.
But they never let the Golden Hurricane gain an upper hand, and gradually ground out a 17-point victory.
“We learned a lot from the Boise game,” Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said. “We have to take every opponent seriously, especially as we get ready for conference play. We know that in the Valley, if you don’t play your best basketball, you’re going to get beat.”
The Bluejays open Missouri Valley Conference action with a Dec. 29 home game against Evansville. Their first conference road test will come four days later when they play at Illinois State, the team picked second behind Creighton in the preseason poll.
The Bluejays also enjoyed great success last season in nonconference play, going 10-1 before Christmas. This season’s 11-1 start perhaps is more noteworthy, as it has come against a tougher schedule.
Three of Creighton’s most difficult games have come away from CenturyLink Center. The Bluejays posted victories of 10, 14 and 10 points, respectively, over Wisconsin, Arizona State and California. They also own a 22-point win at Nebraska.
McDermott uses his first season at Creighton as a way to measure the progress his program is making. The Bluejays won four games away from Omaha during the 2010-11 season.
Eight of their 13 losses in either true road games or on a neutral court came by five points or fewer.
“We were a team in 2011 that had a lot of near misses on the road,” McDermott said. “We had trouble finishing off close games. I think that improved during the course of last season, and we’ve already won four games away from home against some pretty good basketball teams.
“I think we’ve matured and we understand how to prepare to play in tough environments. Because of our ranking last year and this year, we have a big X on our backs. It takes maturity to handle those situations and execute.”
It also takes maturity to handle a situation like the one involving guard Josh Jones. The senior from Omaha Central fainted in pregame warmups before the Dec. 6 Nebraska game. He was diagnosed with a heart issue that required a surgical procedure this past week.
Jones, who underwent open heart surgery as a senior in high school, is sidelined indefinitely. He might never play again. Though his teammates feel badly for Jones, they realize they can’t let his situation impact their play.
“Guys know with Josh out, they have to step it up,” Wragge said. “And they have. I’m really proud of how we’ve handled that situation.”
Center Gregory Echenique points to the chemistry the players have built the past two to three seasons as a reason they’ve been able to handle adversity.
“I said it last year that we really don’t panic when things aren’t going our way, and I think that’s carried over to this year,” he said. “We stay strong, and I think that says a lot about our team. The fact that we trust each other that much goes a long way.”
Despite a 40-7 record since the start of the 2011-12 season and having one of the best players in America to learn on when times get tough, the Bluejays know they are still a team with a limited margin for error.
All-American Doug McDermott is capable of doing some amazing things, but not even he is talented enough to bail Creighton out of every tight spot.
“I think guys have a better understanding now of how precise we have to be,” guard Grant Gibbs said. “We’re not going to out-talent people. We just can’t walk out there and win.
“Where we are at our best is when we’re executing on both ends of the floor. When that’s not very good, we’re not very good.”
Fortunately for the Bluejays, they’ve been locked in more times than not this season. They know that carrying a No. 17 national ranking makes them marked men.
“We realize when we’re not firing on all cylinders — offensively and defensively — that anyone can beat us,” Gibbs said. “And we know that with the start of conference season, things are going to get tougher. The opponents scout you better, they know you better.”
The Valley season stretches over the next nine weeks, with the only break coming when Creighton plays a nonconference game as part of the BracketBusters series. League play can be a grind that stresses even the best of teams.
“That’s why we need to stay focused on getting better every day,” Gibbs said. “If we can just focus in on that next practice or the next team we’re playing, we’ll have a chance to be successful.”
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, email@example.com, twitter.com/PivOWH