SPRINGFIELD, MO – After Wednesday night’s 66-65 win over Missouri State, the No. 19 Creighton Bluejays have taken control of the Missouri Valley race. They are tied with Wichita State at 7-1 in the league with a three game lead on everyone in the conference other than Drake and they have already won on the Shocker’s home court, something that is not an easy thing to do.
Creighton has done plenty of damage outside of the league as well. They beat Iowa by 23, knocked off Nebraska by 10 and beat Northwestern. They went into Viejas Arena and knocked off San Diego State despite trailing by 17 in the first half. Again, that’s not an easy thing to do.
I don’t mean to pick on the Rebels, but the point is that UNLV is a very good basketball team, one that climbed as high as 12th in the polls last week. And they couldn’t win at Wichita State or at San Diego State. That should give you a sense of just what Creighton is capable of doing this season. Throw in the fact that they have a National Player of the Year candidate in their front court, two high-profile transfers in their starting lineup and what seems like nine different guys capable of knocking down a three or scoring 15 points on a given night, and its no wonder the Bluejays are having such a successful season.
They can score as well as anyone in the country.
But that doesn’t mean that Creighton isn’t a flawed team. In fact, their biggest issue is quite obvious and well-known: this is not a very good defensive basketball team. Kenpom has them at 144th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and its not difficult to figure out why. Creighton does not have many defensive playmakers. They are 328th in the country in turnover percentage, they are 303rd in the country in block percentage and they are 297th nationally is steal percentage.
Its not all bad — they are an excellent defensive rebounding team and they don’t allow their opponents to get to the foul line — but being very average when it comes to forcing tough shots magnifies the fact that they aren’t manufacturing the end of possessions with turnovers.
“Getting stops is one of the most important things,” center Gregory Echinique said on Wednesday. “We’re a team that can score a lot, we’ve been trying to make our defense our strength.”
Creighton has lost just two games on the season, but in both of those games they allowed their opponent’s best player to get in a rhythm. In an 80-71 loss at St. Joseph’s, Carl Jones, the Hawks leading scorer, went off for 20 of his 29 points in the second half, providing the spark that Phil Martelli’s team needed to score 45 second half points and cruise relatively unchallenged to a nine point win. In the first game of MVC play at home against Missouri State, Kyle Weems, the reigning Valley player of the year, scored 25 of his career-high 31 points in the second half and Anthony Downing went off for 26 points and five assists in a 77-65 win.
If you cannot slow down a good team’s best player in crunch time, you aren’t going to be winning too many basketball games.
And that is why Wednesday’s game was so promising.
Playing on the road against a Bear team that has had their number the last two seasons, Creighton overcame an eight point deficit in the second half, and they did it with their defense. Creighton switched from their typical man-to-man defense to a zone, a change that threw off Missouri State’s offensive rhythm.
“We went zone and took away penetration. If they were going to beat us, they were going to beat us with a jump shot,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said after the game. “We don’t play a lot of zone. As I told the guys in the time out, we practice it plenty and we don’t use it very much and its for times like this that we practice it.”
It was more than just a switch in defenses, however. Creighton never let Weems get going.
McDermott spent most of the game matched up with Weems, but every time he touched the ball, the Bluejay defense shifted their focus. They doubled him in the post and when he put the ball on the floor, they had plenty of help side defense to cut off driving lanes. It was a team effort, one that kept Weems from getting many open looks. After going 11-22 from the field and 3-4 from three in their first meeting, Weems had just 13 points on 5-16 shooting, hitting only one of the five threes he took.
“Our guys have some pride and competitive spirit,” the elder McDermott said. “They scored 40 or 45 on us in the second half at our place. You look forward to that opportunity to play again if you’re a competitor. I thought that our team defense was better on them. Kyle’s tough to guard one-on-one because of his ability to do things off the dribble. I thought we at least made him take challenged shots.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Creighton buckle-down defensively like this, either.
In the win over Wichita State, Creighton found themselves in a 44-35 hole early in the first half. The Shockers, playing in front of a rocking home crowd on New Year’s Eve, looked like they were on the verge of turning the game into a blow out. But Creighton buckled down, holding WSU to just 17 points over the final 15 minutes, including one 10 minute stretch where the Shockers managed just seven points while hitting just 3-14 from the field.
Creighton did the same against San Diego State. After a Tim Shelton jumper put the Aztecs up 62-57 with 8:38 left, Creighton forced misses on seven of SDSU’s next nine shots, using a 21-10 surge over that stretch to open up a six point lead with two minutes left. If it wasn’t for a flurry of tough threes from Jamaal Franklin down the stretch, Creighton would have won the game going away.
“We’ve worked on it in practice,” Echinique said, “and tonight we were able to do that. We still gotta get better, it shows that we’re improving in that area.”
The bottom line is that Creighton is never going to be a great defensive team. Its not for a lack of effort or a lack of coaching, they just don’t have the kind of physicality or athleticism that can overwhelm an opponent.
But they don’t necessarily need to be a great defensive team. They have enough offensive weapons that they are never going to be out of a game. The question is going to be whether or not they can string together enough stops in key moments to win a game. They did against Wichita State, San Diego State and Missouri State and they won all three games on the road. They didn’t against St. Joseph’s and Missouri State at home, and they lost.
Its as simple as that.
Tu Holloway is not a great offensive player. He’s not overly quick, he’s not a great shooter and he’s limited vertically. There is a reason that his name is shooting up NBA Draft boards right now. But Holloway is clutch. He hit two huge threes in overtime to help Xavier beat Vanderbilt and followed that up with three bigger threes as the Musketeers came back from 19 down against Purdue.
Holloway is at his best in the biggest moments, and its won Xavier two games already this season.
If Creighton can be at their best defensively down the stretch — if they can get the “clutch” stops, so to speak — they are going to win a lot of basketball games.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.