Andrew Merfeld scored some points Thursday with the Creighton basketball team.
The 11-year-old son of Bluejays assistant coach Steve Merfeld attended practice with his dad. At the end of the drill, coach Greg McDermott put the players through some conditioning that required each player to make a free throw after sprinting up and down the court.
With about half the team still to shoot, McDermott sent the young Merfeld to the line. After he narrowly missed two shots, McDermott told him he could end the drill by making his third attempt. He did.
“You don't know how much running you saved these guys,” McDermott said in the post-practice meeting.
With no game scheduled until the Dec. 29 Missouri Valley opener against Evansville, the Bluejays spent Thursday cleaning up their fundamentals during a 90-minute workout at CenturyLink Center. They'll practice again early Friday morning, then part ways for a short holiday break.
“I was really pleased with what we were able to get done today,” McDermott said. “Guys are going home for Christmas and it would have been easy for them to sleepwalk through this practice.
“But their energy was really good, and even though we weren't out here for long, we got better today.”
It will be important, forward Ethan Wragge said, for the players to bring that same attitude back with them when they regroup for a Christmas night practice.
“We can't be sulking because we're practicing on Christmas or we're practicing over the holidays,” Wragge said. “We were a little down about that last year, and then we went and played Missouri State and got whooped.
“As soon as we get back, it has to be that we're ready to get back to business.”
The Bluejays know that because the first league game will be against an Evansville team that features senior guard Colt Ryan. His last visit to the CenturyLink Center saw him score 43 points in a game in which Creighton had to rally from a seven-point deficit with two minutes to play to force overtime. The Bluejays eventually won 93-92.
Ryan's production is the most by a Creighton opponent at the CenturyLink but it hardly came as a surprise to the Bluejays. In seven games against Creighton, Ryan has averaged 23.3 points. His scoring average in three games in Omaha: 31.3.
“We know he has an insane average on our court,” Wragge said. “We have to be ready for him and take it one Valley game at a time.”
The Bluejays enter conference play as the favorite to win the regular-season championship. All but two of 40 voters picked them first in the preseason poll, and Creighton has basically lived up to its advance billing in pre-conference play.
The Bluejays are 11-1, with each victory coming by double-digit margins. Their only loss was an 83-70 setback to Boise State on Nov. 28.
Improvement on the defensive end has been one of the reasons for Creighton's margin of victory being 18.2 points. The Bluejays are averaging 78.9 points per game, down slightly from the 79.2 average they posted in going 29-6 last season.
Creighton is allowing 60.7 points this season, an improvement of 9.0 points a game over last season's 69.7 average. Impressive, but that improvement actually ranks only third among Valley teams.
Southern Illinois' defense has improved an average of 9.7 per game, while Evansville's 61.4-point average is an improvement of 10.3 points.
The importance of defense increases with the start of conference play as games generally become more intense, partly because of the familiarity factor.
“That creates challenges,” McDermott said. “We played Evansville three times last year. They know our personnel and they know what we like to do. And we have a pretty good idea of what they like to do.
“What it really comes down to is execution and intensity, and that's what we have to be sure we're ready for.”
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