Rhode Island-Creighton Preview (Mar 17, 2017)

Creighton is hoping to avoid a first-round upset when it opens NCAA Tournament play against a red-hot Rhode Island team in a Midwest Regional game Friday at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif.

Sixth-seeded Creighton (25-9) has lost eight of its last 15 games since starting point guard Maurice Watson Jr. was lost for the season. Eleventh-seeded Rhode Island (24-9) has won eight in a row and 12 of 14 to earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1999.

The Bluejays haven’t been the same since Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury in January. The situation took an even uglier turn a few weeks later when authorities announced Watson was wanted on suspicion of sexual assault.

Watson averaged 12.9 points and 8.5 assists to help Creighton go 18-1 to start the season. Watson’s absence and his pending legal troubles have cast a shadow over the program, but the Bluejays are trying to avoid the distraction.

“It’s easy to get caught up in everything that’s going on around you that you forget what’s happening in front of you,” Creighton’s Ronnie Harrell Jr. said. “So we’ve talked as a team, coaches included, about just staying in the moment, having each other’s back as well as having everybody else’s back. So I think that was the main thing for us, and I think we’ve done a great job of that.”

Marcus Foster is averaging 18.3 points per game for Creighton. Justin Patton, a 7-footer who could have a matchup advantage against a smaller Rhode Island team, averages 13.1 points and 6.2 rebounds.

Despite their recent struggles, the Bluejays beat Xavier and Villanova last week to reach the championship game of the Big East Conference tournament. They suffered a 74-60 loss to Villanova in the final at Madison Square Garden, but coach Greg McDermott believes the Bluejays will be buoyed by that experience.

“It’s one thing for me to talk about what it’s like, but to experience it and feel it, what the Garden is like on championship Saturday, it’s something that’s pretty incredible,” McDermott said. “And our experience here this week is going to help us moving forward and, I think, help us in the NCAA Tournament.”

Rhode Island lost four of its first 10 games and fell to 12-7 with a loss to Richmond on Jan. 25, but since then the Rams have been on a roll. They won three games in three days to claim the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years.

Jared Terrell scored 20 points in a 70-63 victory over Virginia Commonwealth in the championship game. E.C. Matthews, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, had 19 points and nine rebounds.

“We came into the tournament on a roll,” Matthews told the Providence Journal. “We took care of business — made history.”

The significance of the victory was not lost on coach Dan Hurley, now in his fifth season at Rhode Island.

“We needed a win like this,” Hurley said. “We needed a bid to kind of set our fan base on fire and take things to the next level.”