Creighton players insisted they didn't need a map Tuesday to find their way back to the CenturyLink Center.
It had been awhile — two weeks to be exact — since the Bluejays had been on their homecourt. Creighton had not played or practiced at the CenturyLink since a Jan. 15 win over Northern Iowa as the facility had been used for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
That forced Creighton to play its past three games on the road. The fact that the Jays lost two of the three made the thought of playing Wednesday night's game against Missouri State that much more inviting.
“It's great to be back here after a tough road trip,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “It didn't go how we expected it to, but coming off a win and being back home feels good.”
The Bluejays dropped the first two games on the road to Wichita State and Drake to fall out of first place in the Missouri Valley championship race. They bounced back with a 30-point win Sunday at Southern Illinois, and Wednesday night will try to regain a share of the conference lead in their game against Missouri State.
Indiana State tightened the standings Tuesday with a 68-55 upset of No. 15 Wichita State. A Creighton win over Missouri State would move the Bluejays into a first-place tie with the Shockers, while a loss would leave them in second but tied with the Sycamores.
Creighton already has defeated Missouri State this season, posting a 74-52 win in Springfield on Jan. 11 when All-America forward Doug McDermott scored 39 points, 28 coming in a second half that broke open a close game.
“It was a fight down there until Doug really got it rolling,” Gibbs said. “We know this is going to be another tough game, but we know if we play the way we know how offensively, getting shots from all over the court, that we have a chance to be successful.”
Success has been elusive for the Bears, who are 6-15 overall entering Wednesday's 7:05 p.m. game. Missouri State failed to post a victory over a Division I team in nonconference play. The Bears got a confidence boost by starting Valley play 3-1, but the Creighton loss started them on a four-game skid that they managed to pull out of with a Sunday win over Drake.
Many of Missouri State's problems can be attributed to its youth. Guard Anthony Downing is the team's only senior. He leads his team in scoring with a 14.7 average, but the Bears have had to rely heavily on the contributions of six freshmen.
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Missouri State coach Paul Lusk had to start four of the freshmen against Drake as sophomore forward Christian Kirk was still recovering from a concussion. If Kirk can't go Wednesday, the Bears are expected to again surround Downing with the four freshmen.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott shook his head when asked if he could imagine what it must be like to have to depend on such a youthful lineup.
“That's why I give Paul a lot of credit,” McDermott said. “It's one thing to play that many young guys, but it's another to keep them moving forward when things didn't go well early.
“That's hard because it's easy for young people especially to lose their confidence. Those freshmen are playing at a high level. Gavin Thurman is one of the best — if not the best — freshmen in the league.”
Thurman moved into the starting lineup after the loss to Creighton and has averaged 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds since. Marcus Marshall, who missed the first meeting with the Bluejays because of the flu, ranks as one of the top scoring freshmen in the Valley with a 9.9-point average.
“If you look at their scores,” McDermott said, “we're the only team that has beaten them handily. That's really a credit to Coach Lusk and how he's gotten them to turn things around.
“This is a confident group, and maybe it's too young to realize what they've accomplished because I think it's remarkable the way they've turned it around. We know they're going to fight us defensively and grind it out and try to control the tempo.”
The Bears did a good job of doing that in the first 20 minutes of the first meeting, but lost control of the game when Doug McDermott started making shots.
Lusk is well aware that could happen again on Wednesday, but that's not the only thing that worries him.
“They pose so many problems for you because they're so good offensively,” Lusk said. “They have a lot of weapons. If you try taking one thing away from them, they're going to get that figured out and they'll exploit you another way.”
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