Creighton can thank Indiana State for adding a few degrees to the difficulty that comes with Wednesday's game at Illinois State.
The 7:05 p.m. contest at Redbird Arena figured to be a tough assignment for the Bluejays: It matched the teams picked 1-2 in the Missouri Valley preseason poll in the second conference game of the season.
Creighton won its first game, posting a 17-point win over Evansville. Illinois State didn't, dropping a 77-75 decision Sunday at Indiana State.
“I remember last year when we lost our conference opener,'' Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said. “You go into that next game feeling like it's do or die. We know we're going to get their best shot.''
Creighton lost its Valley opener last season, dropping a home game to Missouri State. The Bluejays faced a tough rebound as they had to travel to Wichita State. But they managed to pull out a much-needed victory.
The difference in the two second-game scenarios, Creighton coach Greg McDermott said, is that the Redbirds' loss this season came on the road.
“When you lose one at home, your back is against the wall,'' McDermott said. “Indiana State, as it proved in Hawaii, is a good basketball team. They're playing really well right now, and going to their place is going to be a difficult win for anyone in our league.''
Indiana State, which will play at Creighton on Saturday, is 8-4 and has won four of its last five games. The Sycamores posted overtime wins against Mississippi and Miami at the Diamond Head Classic before knocking off the Redbirds.
Illinois State dropped to 9-4 with its loss to Indiana State.
“The last thing Illinois State is going to want is to start (Valley play) 0-2,'' McDermott said. “It also will be a tremendous opportunity for us to go to a place and attempt to get a win where not a lot of teams in our league are going to win.''
Creighton was the overwhelming favorite to win the Valley title, receiving 38 of 40 votes in the preseason poll. Illinois State, which like Creighton returned most of its key personnel, received the other two votes and was picked second.
Wednesday's game will also match the Valley's top two scoring teams. The Redbirds are averaging a league-high 80.5 points per game, while Creighton is a close second at 79.5.
Creighton has maintained the standing it established last season as one of the nation's most efficient offenses. Illinois State's increased offensive output is one of the notable differences under new coach Dan Muller.
A former Illinois State player, Muller replaced Tim Jankovich last spring after Jankovich headed to Southern Methodist to become Larry Brown's top assistant. Muller had been an assistant at Vanderbilt under Kevin Stallings, who coached Muller at Illinois State.
Under Jankovich, the Redbirds averaged 69.7 points per game last season to finish 129th in the country in scoring. Illinois State has scored fewer than 69 points just twice this season as Muller has opened things up offensively.
The Redbirds are the only team in the country to have three players — Jackie Carmichael, Bryant Allen and Tyler Brown — score 30 points or more in a game.
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“We're scoring at a very high rate, and our only real bad offensive number is our turnover number,'' Muller said. “We have a lot of guys that can score in different areas. We're pushing the ball and have a lot of possessions, and it's been more about efficiency than points.
“We've been very efficient, and we have a lot of diversity in the ways we can score. Our guys also are playing very unselfishly, too.''
The 6-foot-9 Carmichael leads the Redbirds in scoring (17.8) and rebounding (8.5) while shooting 55.4 percent from the field. Brown and Allen are the team's top 3-point threats, combining for 51 baskets from beyond the arc.
Brown is averaging 16.8 points, while Allen is at 9.4. Forward Jon Ekey, who also is making better than 50 percent of his field-goal attempts, has a 9.5 average, while part-time starter Johnny Hill is averaging 6.1 points while shooting 63.3 percent from the field.
Hill, a sophomore, has helped ease preseason concerns about the point-guard position. He and freshman Kaza Keane, the first player Muller signed after taking the job, have combined for 110 assists and a 2-to-1 assists-to-turnovers ratio while sharing the position.
Illinois State's lone personnel loss from last season's 21-14 team was Nic Moore, who started 29 games at the point as a freshman. Moore decided to transfer after the season, and wound up following Jankovich to SMU.
“Kaza and Johnny have been terrific,'' Muller said. “I said earlier in the year that I thought the point would be a strength of ours, and I think it has been. They're playing well offensively and defensively.
“We have two guys new to the position in college basketball. For Kaza, the position is not new but college basketball is. We converted Johnny to the point. He said he played it in the fourth grade, but I don't believe him. Together, those two guys have given us some leadership and guidance. They've played well.''
So has Carmichael, who many observers consider the prime threat to Creighton's Doug McDermott for league player-of-the-year honors. Always considered an elite talent, Carmichael has made strides the past two seasons in closing the gap between potential and production.
“Jackie is playing at a high level,'' Muller said. “He's expanded his game offensively, and he can be a mismatch on the offensive end. He has great feet defensively, and he's rebounding the ball. We need him to continue doing that.''
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