The World-Herald's Steven Pivovar examines how the NCAA tournament could go for the Bluejays.
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Three reasons Creighton can make history
>> Been there, done that
The Bluejays' appearance in the tournament last March was the first in five years. There was a certain amount of giddiness that accompanied the trip to Greensboro, N.C., that won't be there this time. This group knows what it's like to be a part of college basketball's grandest moment, and that should be beneficial in all aspects on and off the court. While every team that enters the tournament knows that only one will be celebrating after its last game, that doesn't keep the agony of defeat from burning a little deeper. Most of the key contributors on this year's team can remember the empty feeling that engulfed them as they sat in a locker room last March, knowing that they had hit the end of the line. This group is determined to delay revisiting those emotions as long as possible.
>> Defense — clap, clap — defense
Defensive brilliance isn't a term often associated with the past two CU teams, but it's one of the reasons the Bluejays swept through St. Louis on the way to an automatic bid. Creighton limited its three Valley tournament opponents to 33 percent shooting from the field and 55 points per game. Gregory Echenique conjured up his inner Dikembe Mutombo, Austin Chatman was active out front and the rest of their teammates managed to come up with stops. Overall, this team has made some giant strides from a season ago, when Creighton ranked in the bottom third nationally in three key defensive statistical categories — scoring, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. The Bluejays are in the top third nationally in all three this season, and they've lowered the points they've allowed per possession from 1.014 last season to 0.946. That improvement can win games in March.
>> Mr. All-American
CU is not a team that can go only as far as Doug McDermott can carry it, but having him as its hole card does give the Bluejays an advantage. McDermott has scored 30 points or more seven times this season, and his 41-point performance in the winner-take-all battle with Wichita State for the MVC regular-season title will be one talked about for a long, long time. McDermott no longer has difficulty matching up with the long, athletic defenders he'll encounter in Philadelphia. Mick Cronin, whose Cincinnati team gets first crack at trying to slow the Bluejays' All-American, says McDermott is unlike any other player his team has encountered this season. McDermott knows the next time he steps onto a court in a Creighton uniform could be the last. But one of his strengths has been an uncanny ability to stay in the moment, so don't expect that to impact his play.
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Three reasons Creighton will be history
>> Flunking the eye test
Advancement in the tournament often is about matchups, and Creighton's first assignment puts the Bluejays up against the kind of long and athletic teams that have posed problems in the past. Cincinnati's roster is loaded with athletes who, for the most part, are capable of running faster and jumper higher than the Jays. Creighton has overcome its deficiencies in athleticism by relying on team play and superior firepower from the perimeter. If the Bluejays are fortunate enough to get by the Bearcats, then Duke most likely will await with its well-stocked roster of McDonald's All-Americans. CU faced a similar draw last season, when the Bluejays squared off against an athletic Alabama team and an even-more athletic squad in North Carolina.
>> Let's get right to the point
You've heard the talking heads drone on about how guard play is so important in the tournament, about how backcourt experience can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Creighton will be relying heavily on sophomore Austin Chatman, who played a cameo role for the Bluejays last season. Chatman's play as the starting point guard has exceeded the expectations of many this season, but he'll have to ratchet up his level of contribution. That was evident in an early-week practice when Chatman was having difficulty getting open against a scout-team defender. During the press break drill, coach Greg McDermott bluntly told Chatman that Creighton will have a difficult time winning Friday if he can't get open against a Bearcat team that likes to pressure its opponents.
>> Tough enough?
Creighton played well when it had to down the stretch, winning five straight games to lock up the Missouri Valley regular-season title and the conference tournament championship. The hot streak was preceded by a stretch in which Creighton lost six of 11 games, with the sixth loss being a setback at St. Mary's in which the Bluejays looked listless on offense and clueless on defense. Greg McDermott and his players like to say the difference in the two parts of their 27-7 season is as simple as getting a few breaks and making a few shots. So what happens Friday against Cincinnati if the early shots don't drop? Will the Bluejays be mentally tough enough to overcome things if a couple of breaks go the opposite way? How Creighton answers those questions likely will determine whether the Bluejays are playing in Philadelphia on Sunday or watching on television from Omaha.
— Steven Pivovar
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Check out scenes from the photo shoot The World-Herald had with the Creighton men's basketball team: