With No. 4 Villanova still the class of the Big East, three teams are tied for second in the conference with matching 5-2 league records. No. 5 Xavier and Georgetown were both fancied as contenders before the season began, so their presence in that glut comes as no surprise (even with the Hoyas’ issues in non-conference play). The third team with a 5-2 record: the Creighton Bluejays, who Saturday night took care of No. 18 Butler 72-64 in Omaha.
Greg McDermott’s team had incredibly bad luck in tight games a season ago, with nine of their losses coming by five points or less. But their fortunes have changed for the better in 2015-16, and a big reason why is the presence of redshirt junior point guard Maurice Watson Jr.
Watson, who sat out last season after transferring in from Boston University, was the catalyst for Creighton Saturday night. He accounted for 18 points and five assists in the second half, taking advantage of Butler’s perimeter defense in many ball-screen situations. Of the 43 second half points Creighton scored Watson played a role in 30 of them, and he was responsible (either by scoring or assisting) for ten of the Bluejays’ 11 made field goals.
Not mentioned among the best point guards in the Big East when the season began, game by game Watson’s proving that he belongs in the conversation. And that’s made a Creighton team that has other improved players, including center Geoffrey Groselle and shooting guard Isaiah Zierden, one capable of making a noticeable leap up the Big East standings.
Saturday night Creighton managed to take care of a Butler squad that, at 2-5 in conference play, seems to be searching for its identity at this point in the season. During non-conference play the offense was clicking at a rate higher than many anticipated. But things have slowed down on that end of the floor for Chris Holtmann’s team, and they’ve struggled in dealing with that. The Bulldogs have the experience, but can they get things going in the right direction? That’s the question that needs answering at this point in time.
There are no such doubts for Creighton, with roles seemingly well-defined and a team brimming with confidence. The Bluejays will have other opportunities to add to their NCAA tournament résumé, with four of their final six games coming on the road.
The key is getting to the point where those games, which include road tilts at Providence and Xavier, can help seal a return to the NCAA tournament. Thanks in large part to Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton took an important step in that direction Saturday night.