The Evansville team that Creighton will face in its Missouri Valley opener has struggled with consistency in the first six weeks of the season.
The Purple Aces are 7-5 heading into Saturday's game at the CenturyLink Center. They've struggled against the better teams on their schedule and lack a confidence-building marquee victory.
“Right now, it's about us and our ability to play with intensity and execute,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “We needed consistency. We haven't had that from day one.
“There have been times where it's looked like we're moving in that direction, but we still have progress to make in that area.”
Some of the inconsistency could be tied to the early-season injury that took Colt Ryan, the Purple Aces' best player, out of the lineup for 3½ games. Ryan suffered a hip pointer in the second game against Buffalo.
He missed the remainder of that game as Evansville fell to 0-2. He played just three minutes over the next three games against Yale, Western Illinois and Tennessee Tech, but his teammates stepped up and won those contests.
“Our guys sucked it up when Colt went out and we grinded out a couple of wins,” Simmons said. “That was good to see, but the thing that has plagued us is that we have not been consistent in any one area of the game.
“We'll defend and rebound well in one game but not the next. Offensively, we need to be more efficient on a game-by-game basis. We just have not developed the consistency we'll need once conference play starts.”
Ryan, an All-Valley preseason pick, has averaged 13.7 points in the 10 games in which he's played. That's about seven points lower than he averaged as a junior, when he finished 11th nationally in scoring.
Ryan is coming off his best game of the season, scoring 25 points in last Saturday's 75-67 loss to nationally-ranked Butler.
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Simmons said Ryan is now healthy, which could be a bad sign for the Bluejays. He's saved some of his best games over the past three seasons for Creighton and has averaged 23.3 points in seven games against Bluejays.
His last visit to the CenturyLink saw him score 43 points in an overtime loss. Overall, he has averaged 31.3 points in three games in Omaha.
Ned Cox has been the Purple Aces' No. 2 scoring option, averaging 11.6 points per game, while freshman D.J. Ballentine has emerged as the team's leading threat from beyond the arc.
Ballentine has made more than a third of Evansville's 3-point baskets and is shooting 43.9 percent (25 of 57) from the perimeter.
His development in the first 12 games, Simmons said, is similar to the impact Ryan had on Evansville as a freshman.
“I think there are a lot similarities,” Simmons said. “Colt was always a confident guy, and D.J. is a very confident guy. He's learned to play without the basketball, and I think one of the things that has helped D.J. is that we're better now than when Colt came in.
“When Colt came in, we were not very good. He was forced to do a lot of things for us right from the start. We have more experience now, so I think D.J. is coming into a little better situation.”
Although Evansville lost the game at Butler, Simmons said, the tough opponent was perfect for preparing the Purple Aces for the start of conference play.
“I think games like that are why guys come to Evansville,” he said. “They like playing in that kind of intensity and atmosphere. It can be somewhat of a learning experience, much like our game against Notre Dame was.
“But it's going to be similar to what we're going to see on a night-to-night basis in the conference. It gives us a chance to know what it's going to take to be successful in the league.”
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