Creighton still has strides to make before anyone starts calling the Bluejays a bully of the Big East.
But Creighton’s growing toughness, subtle as it’s been at times this season, is one reason the Bluejays find themselves in third place heading into Tuesday’s game at Butler.
“We’re learning what it takes to put teams away,” Creighton center Zach Hanson said. “We’ve jumped on teams in the past, but we’ve let them get back into it.
“We’re learning to keep the foot on the pedal and doing the difficult things it takes to get wins.”
The Bluejays’ three-game winning streak is arguably as much the byproduct of toughness as it is skilled play.
Creighton snapped a three-game skid with a win Feb. 6 over DePaul. Three days later, the Bluejays knocked off then-No. 5 Xavier, and then followed it up by grinding out a 65-62 victory Saturday at Marquette.
Creighton couldn’t make shots in the first half, but still battled the Golden Eagles even through the first 20 minutes. Marquette led late in the game before the Bluejays got some key stops and made some key shots to pull out the win.
In its last three games, Creighton has shored up shortcomings in rebounding and defense that cropped up during the skid.
“Without question, I think we’re making progress in a lot of areas,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “The thing is, this league is such a grind. There are not any easy ones.”
In Marquette, Creighton faced a team desperate to build some stretch-run momentum. In Butler, the Bluejays will be facing an opponent with similar objectives.
The Bulldogs were picked third in the preseason poll but struggled early, with a Jan. 23 loss to Creighton dropping Butler to 2-5 in league play.
The Bulldogs got things turned around, winning five of the next six to get back to .500. Xavier then handed Butler a 74-57 loss on Saturday to leave the Bulldogs 6-7 in the league.
While outsiders might applaud Butler’s resiliency, coach Chris Holtmann said that characteristic has to be a given when a team plays in a power league.
“If we don’t have that approach, then we’re not ready to play in a big-boy league,” Holtmann said. “You have to have some inner stuff and you have to have your perspective to you.
“They just keep coming at you in this league. If you don’t have some inner stuff in you, then you’re not ready to play in this caliber of a league.”
The Bluejays are showing they possess some of that “inner stuff.” Early in the season, Creighton appeared to be a team that needed most things to go right, especially offensively, to have a shot to win.
Now, the Bluejays are capable of going toe-to-toe with their rivals and pulling out wins even when they seem unable to get out of their own way.
“That’s going to help us finish this year off strong,” Hanson said.
A win over the Bulldogs would leave Creighton assured of at least finishing .500 in league play. It also would enhance the Bluejays’ chances of an upper-division finish.
The Big East placed six of its 10 teams in the NCAA tournament last season. While finishing in the top half of the league guarantees nothing in regard to the postseason, the Bluejays know they would be at least in the discussion for landing an at-large bid.
“We’re down to four or five games in league play, and we still have six or seven teams that, with a strong finish, could wind up in the NCAA tournament,” McDermott said. “The parity is just incredible and the games are meaningful.
“We’re excited to be playing in games that count at this point.”
McDermott knows his team still has some heavy lifting to do in its last five games. BracketMatrix.com, which compiles the picks of 89 bracketologists, has Creighton currently in the field for just four of the projections.
Still, McDermott knows his players sense that a solid finish could get them to where they want to go this season, and he’s doing nothing to diminish their enthusiasm.
“It’s my job to make sure they’re focusing on each practice and each possession and we keep moving forward,” McDermott said. “Having said that, the guys are not only college basketball players, but they’re college basketball fans.
“Every college basketball fan is trying to figure out where his team fits in at this time of the year. These guys are no different. They see the brackets and they see who the last four in and the last four out are. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in talking about it.”
McDermott said the fact his team is playing meaningful games down the stretch is satisfying. At this point last season, Creighton was playing out the string en route to a last-place Big East finish.
“One of the things we wanted to be doing was playing meaningful games this time of year, and we’ve done that,” McDermott said. “Now we want to see if we can finish this off. We have some important ones left.”
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