Bluejays start tough stretch vs. Panthers

Northern Iowa's Anthony James shoots over Evansville's Jaylon Moore during a 62-59 loss to the Aces.

Some Saturday afternoon television viewing might make for a restless night or two for Creighton coach Greg McDermott.

He tuned in to watch Northern Iowa's game against Bradley. The Panthers roared out to a 22-2 lead en route to a decisive 84-53 victory over the Braves.

That performance was hardly reassuring with the Panthers set to visit the CenturyLink Center for a Tuesday night game against the Bluejays. Nor was it surprising.

“I think a lot of people still believe that before the dust settles,” McDermott said, “Northern Iowa is going to be one of the top three or four teams in our league.”

The lopsided victory improved Northern Iowa to 9-8 overall and 2-3 in the Missouri Valley. The Panthers, who field one of the most veteran teams in the league, were picked to finish third in the conference's preseason poll.

They took their lumps in playing a difficult nonconference schedule that included five-point losses to No. 3 Louisville and Memphis, which was ranked when the teams met. Northern Iowa also lost to Iowa and No. 24 UNLV while going 7-5 in nonconference play.

“They've played some very good basketball teams,” McDermott said, “and were probably a few possessions here and there from having some marquee wins.”

The Panthers opened Valley play with a 25-point loss at No. 23 Wichita State, then dropped a four-point decision to Indiana State. After picking up a much-needed win against Illinois State, Northern Iowa dropped a 62-59 decision to Evansville.

The Panthers' three Valley losses came to teams that started conference play 10-2.

Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said after Saturday's win over Bradley that his team was in a position where it needed something good to happen. It did, as the Panthers shot 57.7 percent from the field, made 15 3-point baskets and outrebounded the Braves 36-16.

Tuesday's game will mark the latest chapter in what has become a rivalry laced with strong personal connections for McDermott, son Doug and Jacobson. Greg McDermott played at Northern Iowa and was the Panthers' head coach for five seasons.

Jacobson was his top assistant and succeeded McDermott when he left for Iowa State. Doug McDermott signed a letter of intent to play for Jacobson, then was released from it in order to follow his dad to Creighton.

The McDermotts are 3-2 against Jacobson. The teams have split the regular-season series each of the past two seasons, with Creighton picking up an additional win at the 2011 Valley tournament.

Tuesday's meeting with Northern Iowa kicks off a challenging two-week stretch for the Bluejays, who improved to 16-1 and 5-0 in league play with Friday's 74-52 win at Missouri State.

After facing the Panthers, Creighton will play three straight road games, beginning with a showdown against Wichita State. The Bluejays also will play at Drake on Jan. 23 and at Southern Illinois on Jan. 27.

Creighton has to play the three games on the road because the CenturyLink is unavailable while Omaha is hosting the U.S. Figure Skating championships.

“The reality of it is that you play nine at home and nine on the road in the conference,” Greg McDermott said. “I don't think the sequence in which you play the games matters that much.

“This is a big couple of weeks for us, though. We've played some good basketball here at the start, but we have to keep that going in order to finish off the first half of conference play the way we want to.”

Reviewing the win over Missouri State left McDermott convinced that the individual brilliance that his son is capable of might only be exceeded by the unselfishness of his team.

Doug McDermott scored 39 points against the Bears, 18 of which came in succession to start the second half. He had 28 of his points after halftime, when he made 10 of 11 shots from the field.

“Our guys realized that Doug was hot and did a great job of getting him the ball,” the coach said. “These guys have proven over and over that they don't care about who scores the points. They just want to win.

“This is a group that puts the team above itself. A lot of coaches spend a lot of time in practice trying to convince guys how valuable it is to make that extra pass. I don't have to spend any time at that because our guys know.”

Of course, it helps when that extra pass goes to a player with McDermott's ability to finish.

“Some of the shots he made last night were very difficult shots,” Greg McDermott said. “Not very many people make those shots. Not very many people take those shots, but Doug has worked on them and he's earned the right to take them.

“The thing is, when he's struggling, he knows not to take those shots. But he got it rolling last night, and when he does that, he has the green light.”

McDermott's most impressive basket of the night might have been the 3-point shot he made to cap the 18-point run at the start of the second half. He knocked the shot down over a Missouri State defender while falling back off one leg.

“That shot had a high degree of difficulty,” Greg McDermott said. “His confidence might have been at an all-time high when he took it. He was feeling it at that point.”

An all-conference post man as a player at Northern Iowa, Greg McDermott was asked where he would shoot from when he was “feeling it.”

“Probably from about three feet,” he said with a chuckle. “When I was really feeling it, I might have moved back to five feet.”

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