To join Dance, Jays know they can't slip

Creighton's approach to the end of the regular season changed 15 days ago.

The Bluejays upset fifth-ranked Xavier on the evening of Feb. 9. The victory over one of the country's elite teams and a probable high seed in the NCAA tournament reinforced to Creighton's players just how close they might be to landing their own spot in the field of 68.

They also knew their margin for error in their final six regular-season games was slim given some of their earlier slip-ups.

Since then, they've approached every game like tournament time, guard James Milliken said.

"We know we have to win as many of these games as we can if we do want to get to the tournament,'' he said.

Creighton comes into Wednesday night's meeting against Marquette with 17 wins, including a 65-62 decision over the Golden Eagles 11 days ago. The Bluejays sit fourth in the Big East with four regular-season games left.

They know with an NCAA RPI of 82 and a nonconference schedule strength of 284th that there is still plenty of heavy lifting to do. At the same time, they know a strong home stretch will enhance their chances.

MARQUETTE AT CREIGHTON

7:05 p.m. Wednesday

CenturyLink Center

CBSSN • 1620 AM KOZN

"We're a borderline NCAA tournament team, and it's up to us to prove we're one of the top 68 teams,'' center Geoffrey Groselle said. "Every win from now on will determine whether we get into the tournament.''

After Wednesday's meeting with Marquette, the Bluejays play their final home game Sunday against St. John's.

They finish the regular season on the road, playing at Providence on March 2 and then taking on Xavier on March 5. From there, Creighton will head to the Big East tournament, which begins March 9 with a play-in round at New York's Madison Square Garden.

Creighton took part in the play-in round for the first time last season after tying for last in the regular season. Avoiding a repeat would have seemed like a worthy goal for a team picked ninth in the preseason.

Instead, Groselle said, the Bluejays talked about returning to the field of 68. That talk has heated up as they've played their way into a possible upper-division finish.

"The guys are aware of where we're at and what we want to accomplish," coach Greg McDermott said. "We're in fourth place, a game out of third, in a very good conference.

"If we can finish strong and we can improve our position, we at least enter the conversation. And that's our goal. For that to happen, though, we have to take care of Marquette on Wednesday."

The Golden Eagles sit eighth in the Big East at 6-8 with the same overall record as the Bluejays. Like Creighton, they started the season intent on making strides from last season, when they shared last place in the standings. The Golden Eagles have improved, although their inconsistency in conference play leaves them facing another possible play-in game.

But the Bluejays know from their game 11 days ago that the Golden Eagles can be dangerous. Marquette led late in the game before Milliken made a clutch 3-point shot and Isaiah Zierden sealed the deal with two free throws in the final seven seconds.

"That was a very tough game," Groselle said. "They're a very good and a very disciplined team. It's going to take a lot for us to beat them twice."

The Golden Eagles are one of the country's youngest teams, with their best player being 6-foot-11 freshman forward Henry Ellenson. He leads the team in scoring (16.5 average) and rebounding (10.0).

He has recorded 15 double-doubles, tied for 16th nationally. He has scored 10 points or more in all but one game.

"We're playing against a guy who, if he decides to enter the NBA draft, should be a top-10 pick or maybe even a top-5 pick,'' McDermott said. "Even in this league, you don't see guys like that every day. He's very talented.''

These teams' first meeting hardly produced memorable basketball.

"I don't think either team played particularly well,'' McDermott said. "I was pleased with some of the things we did defensively, but at times Marquette just missed shots. We also had some good looks from the 3-point line in the first half that we couldn't knock down.

"We made some timely ones down the stretch. We'll have to do that again on Wednesday."

The Bluejays know their two remaining home games fall in the must-win category.

"I think our guys understand the importance of playing well this time of year," McDermott said. "We have an opportunity to get a very good win for us tomorrow night."

Contact the writer: 402-679-2298, steve.pivovar@owh.com twitter.com/PivOWH

NOTES

The Golden Eagles lead the league in assists (16.3 per game) and steals (7.7). Traci Carter ranks fifth in the Big East in assists (4.5 per game) and fourth in steals (1.6).

Marquette is relying heavily on its starters for offensive production. In seven games since Jan. 24, Golden Eagles starters have accounted for 86.3 percent of the team's points and 75.2 percent of the rebounding. In Sunday's win over DePaul, the starters accounted for 90 percent of the team's points and rebounds.

Creighton has won four of five games against Marquette since the two teams became Big East rivals. Overall, the Golden Eagles hold a 49-32 advantage on the all-time series.

Creighton has not trailed in its last two games at the CenturyLink Center and has posted wire-to-wire victories in eight of 15 home games.

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