The difference Greg McDermott sees in Missouri State's after-Christmas play is dramatic.
The Bears, who didn't post a Division I win before the holiday, are an overtime loss away from a 4-0 start to Missouri Valley play. Their most recent win came over an Illinois State team that was thought of well enough to be picked in the preseason to finish second behind McDermott's Creighton team.
“They're one play away from having the same conference record as we do,” McDermott said. “That in itself should get our attention.”
Creighton (15-1, 4-0) will try to protect its share of first place in the Valley when it squares off Friday against the Bears (5-11, 3-1) in a 7:05 p.m. game at JQH Arena in Springfield. The No. 13 Bluejays will be looking for just their second win in the past eight meetings with Missouri State.
Prior to the start of conference play, a Creighton victory appeared close to a sure thing. Missouri State went 2-10 in nonconference play, with its only wins coming over Philander Smith and Malone, a couple of NCAA Division II teams.
“Forget what they did in the nonconference,” McDermott said. “They look like a totally different team on film than the one we saw in the nonconference portion of the schedule. We're going into a hornet's nest Friday night.”
The Bears opened conference play with a victory over Southern Illinois before dropping a 62-59 overtime decision at Evansville. They bounced back to post a 12-point win at Drake before handing Illinois State a 62-55 loss Tuesday.
A big reason for the turnaround is that the Bears started making shots they were missing in the first 12 games of the season. After shooting 37.6 percent from the field in the first 12 games, Missouri State has made 47.4 percent of its shots in the first four conference games.
The Bears are also defending the perimeter, which should be important with the nation's top 3-point shooting team coming to town. Creighton is averaging 9.9 3-point baskets per game and is shooting 44.9 percent from beyond the arc. Missouri State came into the week 18th nationally in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.227).
Opponents are averaging 4.6 3-point baskets against the Bears, who have not allowed more than eight in any of their 16 games.
“We had trouble putting the ball in the basket early in the season,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said, “but the one thing we have done well for most of the year is guard.”
|BLUEJAYS TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the conversation on the Bluejays Today Facebook page.|
Lusk knew coming into the season that the Bears could take some lumps as he has the seventh-youngest team in Division I with a total of 10 years of college basketball experience.
Anthony Downing is the team's only senior, and the Bears start three freshmen in Dorrian Williams, Marcus Marshall and Drew Wilson.
The lack of experience made the early struggles even more difficult.
“We did not have a whole lot to lean on,” Lusk said. “Our best player (Downing) has only been through this once. We tried to stay positive with the guys, but we also challenged them. We kept reminding them that this is a process, and it's not important where you start but where you finish.
“To their credit, they kept coming to work every day. We're a team that's limited in a lot of areas, and our margin for error is not huge, but we're starting to do a better job of playing to our strengths and weaknesses.”
Downing, who joined the program as a junior-college transfer last season, has led the resurgence. The guard is averaging 20.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals in the four Valley games, and he's made 70 percent of his field-goal attempts in the past two games.
Lusk said juniors Keith Pickens and Nathan Scheer have provided strong play off the bench, while Marshall — the Valley's leading freshman scorer — has been solid throughout the season.
As difficult as the 2-10 start was, Lusk said, there were enough bright spots to keep the Bears from getting totally discouraged.
“We had our moments,” he said. “We battled South Carolina and SMU. We could have beaten Valpo (Valparaiso) here, but the one constant was that we just couldn't put the ball in the basket.”
The shots are starting to fall, but Lusk said the Bears can't change their mindset.
“I don't think our guys have started thinking, 'Holy cow, we're a great team now,'” he said. “They did a good job of not caving in and giving up when things were tough for us.
“Even though we've won a couple of games, I don't think any of our guys are thinking we've arrived.”
» Creighton leads the series with the Bears 31-28 but Missouri State is 18-8 in games in Springfield.
» The Bluejays' 15-1 start is tied for the second-best in program history. The 2002-03 team also started 15-1, while the 1942-43 team won its first 16 before losing its final game of the season.
» Creighton is 13-3 in true road games since the start of the 2011-12 season. Only one team, Murray State, has posted more true road wins (18) in that span than the Bluejays.
» Doug McDermott needs 11 points to pass Nate Funk and move into sixth place on Creighton's all-time scoring chart. Funk scored 1,754 points in a career that ended in 2007.
» McDermott was listed third behind Duke's Mason Plumlee and Michigan's Trey Burke in ESPN.com's first player of the year straw poll. McDermott ranked second behind Plumlee in CBSSports.com's midseason player of the year listing.
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, email@example.com, twitter.com/PivOWH