Early-season resiliency has put Xavier and Creighton on a midseason collision course.
Both teams took some lumps in multi-team tournaments in November — the Bluejays lost back-to-back games at the Wooden Legacy tournament in California, the Musketeers dropped three in a row at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
Neither Creighton nor Xavier has lost since, as each team brings eight-game winning streaks into Sunday's 2:05 p.m. showdown at the CenturyLink Center. The winner will retain at least a share of first place in the Big East after four conference games.
“If we expect to play for a conference championship, we need to protect our home floor,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “That's easier said than done, but it's very important that the CenturyLink is a difficult place to play on Sunday afternoon.”
In other words, McDermott wants to feel a similar buzz to the one he and his team experienced during the New Year's Eve conference opener against Marquette. That crowd of 18,525 brought probably as much energy and emotion as has been on display in the building's 10-year history.
Xavier coach Chris Mack remembers the trips he made to Omaha in 2005 and 2006 as a Musketeers assistant. Creighton won both games, by a basket in '05 and by six points the next season.
“Tell the fans they should be wore out from the Marquette game,” Mack said with a chuckle. “They can treat us kindly on Sunday, and then they can worry about fixing it from there.”
Mack will be bringing a team to Omaha that has been anything but kind to its opponents since returning from the Bahamas. The Musketeers closed nonconference play with five straight wins, the pivotal one being a 64-47 pounding of crosstown rival Cincinnati.
Xavier has opened Big East action with a 10-point win over St. John's, an 11-point victory over Butler and Thursday's 86-79 triumph over Marquette.
“No one wanted to have the type of tournament that we did in the Bahamas,” Mack said. “We were 15 points ahead of Iowa with about 15 minutes to play and really fell apart. Our best player went down with cramps, and we just never were able to recover. It was tough sledding down there.”
Xavier also lost to Tennessee and Southern California in the tournament.
“I think any good team learns from its good and bad experiences and figures out a way to get better,” Mack said. “I think that's what we've done. When we first got back from the Bahamas, our confidence was shook a little bit.
“The first two home games we had following the Bahamas, we weren't very good. We got on the right track when we played Cincinnati. From there, we've gotten better almost each and every game.”
Two constants in the winning streak have been the Musketeers' ability to dominate on the defensive end and on the boards. Xavier (13-3) leads the Big East in rebounding margin (plus-7.0) and is third in the league in scoring defense (64.6 points).
The Musketeers are capable of locking down opponents. They held Cincinnati to six points over an 11-minute stretch in the Dec. 14 win. Two games later, Xavier held Wake Forest without a field goal for the final 9½ minutes of the first half in a 20-3 run that helped produce a 68-53 win.
Xavier broke open its Big East opener with a decisive 15-0 run against St. John's.
Mack's best offensive player, sophomore guard Semaj Christon, also has become one of the leaders on the defensive end.
“Semaj has always valued the defensive end, but he's turned into a really, really good defender this year,” Mack said. “A year ago, he'd get lost in screening actions, but it's very rare that happens this year.
“He's really locked in and does a really good job. He does the things that don't always show up in the box score. That's where he's really grown.”
Offensively, the 6-foot-3 Christon is averaging 15.6 points and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from 3-point range. He is coming off a career-high 28-point performance in which he made 8 of 10 shots from the field against Marquette.
McDermott calls Christon the best offensive player Creighton has faced in its new league.
“He's an NBA guard, in my opinion,” McDermott said.
The Musketeers also are getting big contributions from Matt Stainbrook, a 6-10 junior who transferred from Western Michigan. Stainbrook is averaging a team-high 8.4 rebounds to go along with 11.1 points, but it's been his passing ability (2.0 assists per game) that has really impressed Mack.
“He's the type of player that commands double teams in the low post,” Mack said. “Matt's teammates have really gained a lot of confidence in him over the course of the year. He's a great passer, an excellent rebounder and he's a guy that we can run our halfcourt offense through.”
All of Creighton's wins since a Dec. 1 loss to George Washington have been by margins of 10 points or more, but the Bluejays come into Sunday's game without one starter and with another banged up. Sixth-year senior Grant Gibbs dislocated his kneecap in Tuesday's 81-62 win over DePaul, while All-American Doug McDermott sprained his left shoulder.
Gibbs is out at least a month, while McDermott expects to play against Xavier.
“On paper, they won't have the same team they've had, but with a veteran team like Creighton has, everyone knows they have to pick up the slack and play with a little more energy,” Mack said. “They have a tight-knit group, and this will just bond them together.
“Guys will play a little bit harder to make up for the guy that is out.”