A Seton Hall lineup loaded with young guns will present a formidable challenge Saturday for Creighton.
The Pirates start five sophomores who have played big roles in a 12-3 start. The group includes Angel Delgado, last season’s Big East rookie of the year, and Isaiah Whitehead, a top 15 recruit out of high school who has blossomed after a rough freshman season.
“They’ve all made great strides from last year,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott in assessing what stacks up to be the league’s best collection of young talent. “It will be a heck of a challenge, but one that we’re excited about.”
McDermott’s team comes to Newark, New Jersey, off a confidence-building win Tuesday against Georgetown. The Bluejays played some of their best defense of the season, particularly in crunch time, to pull out the victory that left them 11-5 and 2-1 in the conference.
Creighton held Georgetown to six points in its final 14 possessions and closed the game on a 26-10 run.
“We saw what we can do when we’re really focused on what’s being asked of us,” Creighton guard Maurice Watson said. “We saw what we can do when we really lock in and do what the coaches are asking us to do.”
Defensive consistency has been one of the Bluejays’ shortcomings this season. They rank last in the 10-team Big East in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense and are ninth in 3-point field-goal percentage defense.
That’s often forced them into trying to outscore opponents. Coming up with key stops down the stretch against Georgetown provided a shot of confidence. the Hoyas missed 7 of their last 9 shots and committed three turnovers.
“We just have to watch what we did in the last eight minutes defensively and try to carry it over from game to game,” Creighton guard Isaiah Zierden said. “That’s the mental focus we need to have.”
It could be vitally important Saturday against the Pirates, who rank second in the league in scoring defense while averaging nearly 75 points a game.
Whitehead triggers the attack, ranking in the top six in the league in scoring (15.5 points a game) and assists (4.6). Khadeen Carrington is 13th in scoring, Delgado leads the league in rebounding, and Seton Hall has three players in the top nine in steals.
“Whitehead is distributing the ball so much better,” McDermott said. “He can still score at any time, and what makes him so dangerous is that he’s so big and physical. His range is four or five feet beyond the line, so you have to respect that.
“Delgado is just a warrior. He’s so difficult to keep off the glass, he runs well in transition and, because of his effort, gets some easy baskets. And Carrington has really improved. He’s always been slippery in getting to the rim, but he’s shooting it a little more consistently this season.”
Kevin Willard, who watched his team melt down in losing nine of its last 10 in finishing 16-15 last season, also likes what the Pirates have been getting from the supporting cast.
“I think the most surprising thing has been the consistency of our bench play,” Willard said. “They have picked us up offensively and given us a spark.
“We’ve had some games where we’ve struggled to score and our bench has come in and given us a good burst of energy. It’s been one of our strengths.”
Seton Hall is unbeaten at home, having notched eight of its 12 victories on its home court. The Pirates lost at Villanova 72-63 in their last game.
“They’re very aggressive and they attack you,” Watson said. “They’re going downhill. Whitehead’s transition to point guard makes them even better because of his ability to score. And now he’s become a better passer.
“That’s all a credit to him and how hard he’s worked. It’s definitely going to be a challenge that we need to step up and pass.”
» Seton Hall leads the series 8-3, with each of the last three games being decided by one point. Creighton won both games during the 2013-14 season, the second 72-71. Seton Hall swept the series last season, making its final shot in 68-67 and 67-66 wins.
» Against Georgetown, Watson scored 20 of his career-high 27 points in the second half. He became the first Bluejay to score 20 points or more in a half since Doug McDermott did it against DePaul in the 2014 Big East tournament.
» Seton Hall averages 13.7 offensive rebounds per game, which leads the league. Creighton has allowed five offensive rebounds in its last two games and ranks second in the Big East in defensive rebounding.
» Seton Hall has held four of its last six opponents to 20 percent or worse 3-point shooting. For the season, the Pirates have held opponents to 31.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc. Creighton leads the Big East in 3-point field-goal percentage (.385).
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