PHILADELPHIA — The challenge awaiting Creighton in Friday’s NCAA tournament game against Cincinnati is one the Bluejays have grown used to in recent weeks.
Twice in the past four games, the Bluejays have hoisted a championship trophy after getting the best of a team that, like Cincinnati, defends like crazy and attacks the glass with passion.
In detailing the similarities the Bearcats have with his team’s most intense rival, Creighton coach Greg McDermott pointed out one notable difference.
“They’re Wichita State on steroids,” he said.
No accusation, just observation. Wichita State is the Creighton opponent in the regular season that is most likely to pass the eye test, that subjective exercise that the talking heads like to use to measure a team’s athletic ability.
The Cincinnati team that practiced Thursday just before the Bluejays took the court at the Wells Fargo Center doesn’t just pass the eye test. The Bearcats ace it.
Cincinnati’s roster is well-stocked with guys who are long and lean and capable of doing things on a basketball court that 99 percent of the population can only dream of. What the Bearcats can’t do, at least over the past six weeks, is put the ball in the basket with regularity.
Cincinnati (22-11) has lost seven of its past 11 games heading into the 1:45 p.m. second-round matchup against the No. 22 Bluejays (27-7). Part of the problem, Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said, is the level of competition his team has faced in the Big East.
“And some of it is confidence,” Cronin said. “That’s something we’ve been working on a lot lately.”
Cincinnati has averaged just 55 points in its past 11 games. That’s hardly enough even for a team that has allowed opponents to score just 58.8 points per game to rank 23rd nationally in scoring defense.
Twice in the past six games, the Bearcats have failed to break 44 points. Still, McDermott doesn’t buy into suggestions that Cincinnati is an offensively challenged team that his team can merely try to outscore.
“Their three guards are all very good scorers,” he said. “Everybody thinks we shoot a lot of 3s, but Cincinnati has shot more than we have in one less game. And they have very capable shooters taking those shots.”
Cincinnati guards Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker combine to average 40 of their team’s 66 points. They have made 190 of the Bearcats’ 225 3-point baskets. They are capable of going off against any team.
Some of the Bearcats’ recent offensive problems can be traced to knee and shoulder injuries that have slowed Wright. Before a mid-January game against DePaul, Cronin said, Wright was playing as well as any guard in the country.
“Since then, he’s been a far cry from himself,” he said. “He has played well in the last few games, and we’re hoping he’s close to getting his groove back offensively.”
Wright holds the school record with 198 steals. Fifty-two have come this season in spearheading a Cincinnati defense that has allowed just four teams to score 70 points or more.
Creighton has failed to score 70 in just 10 of its 34 games. The Bluejays are one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams, averaging 1.15 points per possession while shooting an NCAA-best 50.8 percent from the field.
“We know that (Doug) McDermott is a great scorer, but he has a supporting cast with him,” Kilpatrick said. “We’ll just have to continue playing defense the way we’ve been playing, focusing a little bit more on McDermott and getting to their shooters.
“We know they have great shooters, but if we continue playing the way we have, we’ll be all right.”
McDermott comes into the game averaging 23.1 points while shooting 56.1 percent from the field and 49.7 percent from 3-point range. If McDermott gets loose, Cronin said, the Bearcats could be in for a long afternoon.
“Our guys have seen a lot of great players,” he said, “but we have not seen a scorer of his magnitude.”
As he has all season, McDermott knows he’ll be the focus of Cincinnati’s defensive game plan.
“They’re going to try to be really physical with me, but I’m OK with that,” he said. “I’ve seen a little bit of everything this year. Teams have tried to do a lot of things, but I think the one thing we’ve shown is that we’re not a one-man team.”
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