(AP) — Creighton and Illinois State were picked as the Missouri Valley Conference’s top teams prior to the season, expectations that only one lived up to through the first half of the league slate.
While the Redbirds have recovered from their ugly start, though, the 16th-ranked Bluejays have begun to stumble.
Creighton tries to bounce back from an eye-opening loss as it returns home Saturday night looking for a seventh straight win over the Redbirds, who hope to stay hot after a stirring come-from-behind victory.
The Bluejays (20-4, 9-3) were looking every bit like the top team in the MVC during their 17-1 start, winning their first six conference games by an average of 16.7 points.
They’ve stumbled since, and their latest loss was the most alarming. Doug McDermott was held to eight points – one-third of an average that was second in the nation – and Creighton trailed by as many as 26 in a 76-57 loss at Indiana State on Wednesday.
The Bluejays posted their lowest offensive output of the season.
“It’s the best (defense) we’ve seen this year,” coach Greg McDermott said. “They kept us in front of them and they didn’t really expose themselves when they did help. They outrebounded us on the backboard, and I’ll have to take a look at the tape, but I thought some of our shots were ill-advised.”
Creighton has a plus-6.4 rebound margin in its wins but is a minus-6.5 in losses.
If there’s another concern for a team that leads the nation in field-goal percentage at 51.7 and 3-point percentage at 44.3, it’s a lack of activity at the defensive end. The Bluejays have forced 8.7 turnovers a game since conference play began, one of the 10 worst marks in the country.
They forced seven at Illinois State last month but won 79-72 behind 18 points from 3-point specialist Ethan Wragge. The junior forward did all his damage from beyond the arc, going 6 of 9.
Wragge’s shot, though, has been conspicuously absent in Creighton’s defeats. He’s hit four of 18 and totaled 12 points.
Illinois State (14-10, 5-7) has done everything better lately after barely cracking 40 percent from the field in losing its first six conference games. The Redbirds put it all together late at Drake on Wednesday, rallying from 12 down with 7:49 to play to win 94-86.
“We made the effort plays that it takes to win games, and we were really good offensively,” coach Dan Muller said. “… Our conditioning level, our toughness level, mental and physical, really won the game for us.
“(Our players are) buying in again. They’re believing.”
Illinois State got to the line a season-high 36 times against the Bulldogs – Jackie Carmichael, Tyler Brown and Johnny Hill all shot at least 10 free throws – and that’s been a major key to its success. The Redbirds are 10-3 when they get to the line at least 20 times.
They only shot 10 free throws in the first meeting with Creighton, which is among the nation’s most successful teams at keeping opponents off the line.
Illinois State’s biggest concern still has to be containing McDermott despite holding him to 15 points last month. The junior has shot 62.0 percent while participating in the Bluejays’ six consecutive wins in the series, and he totaled 58 points in the final two victories over the Redbirds last season.
Carmichael, one of four players in the nation averaging 18.0 points and 9.0 rebounds, has been held to 11.0 and 5.2 during the Redbirds’ skid against Creighton.