Adding to the intrigue of Creighton's response to its worst loss of the season is the recent performance of its next opponent.
Illinois State, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of Missouri Valley Conference basketball this season, visits CenturyLink Center for a 9 p.m. game Saturday against a 16th-ranked Creighton team coming off Wednesday's 19-point loss to Indiana State.
Three weeks ago, the Redbirds might have been the perfect get-well opponent. Picked to finish second in the Valley's preseason poll, Illinois State opened conference play 0-6 and had observers around the league trying to figure out what was going on in Normal.
Since then, the Redbirds have won five of six, with the loss coming when they blew a big lead at Bradley. Their latest win came Wednesday when they battled back from a 19-point first-half deficit at Drake.
“We're playing as hot of a team as there is in our league on Saturday,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.
That could have serious ramifications for Creighton, which could list everything it did right against Indiana State on the head of a pin. The Bluejays broke down repeatedly on defense, and their normally high-octane offense never got out of low gear. The result was the second-worst loss in McDermott's three seasons at Creighton.
He downplays any suggestion that the timing of Illinois State's visit might not be perfect with a “you-have-to-play-them-all-sometime” comment. His players know the Redbirds will present a challenge at this point that some other teams in the league might not.
“They are the team in our league that everyone knows that when they get it rolling, they're as good as anybody around,” Bluejay guard Grant Gibbs said. “They struggled early in the season, but they're back to doing what they do best.
“Coming off a loss like we had and facing them, we know that our effort and intensity is going to have to be at its best.”
Creighton finds itself with a one-game lead in the standings, in part, because last-place Southern Illinois upset a Wichita State team that had emerged from the first half of conference play atop the league. The Shockers have now lost three straight and are tied with Indiana State.
The Sycamores still trail Creighton because they lost at Drake between impressive victories against Wichita State and Creighton. The race for the title is becoming laced with twists and turns, but none so dramatic as what Illinois State has done.
After going 9-3 in nonconference play, the Redbirds opened Valley play by losing to Indiana State, Creighton, Northern Iowa, Missouri State, Drake and Wichita State. Four of the losses came by seven points or fewer, and one happened when explosive guard Tyler Brown was serving a suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
Brown has averaged 17 points in the seven games since his return, and is coming off a 25-point, nine-assist performance in the 94-86 win at Drake. Overall, he is averaging 16.1 points and teams with senior forward Jackie Carmichael (18.1 points, 9.3 rebounds) to give Illinois State the highest-scoring duo in the league.
Redbirds coach Dan Muller points to his team's improvement on defense as the key to the recent turnaround.
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“We were letting teams shoot 48 percent against us in our 0-and-6 start, and in our last five, we've gotten that down to around 40 percent,” Muller said before the Drake game. “We're guarding hard and playing hard. It's not really rocket science, but our intensity and discipline has been better defensively.
“We have some individuals that are more focused now. Tyler still isn't shooting it well, but he's getting to the basket. He's still a threat because everyone knows he can go off at any time.”
Brown's penetrating ability got him to the foul line 10 times against Drake, and the Redbirds shot 36 free throws, making 32. That has to be a particular concern for the Bluejays, who were hurt repeatedly on dribble-drives against Indiana State.
Muller likes the way his team has bounced back from the loss to Bradley with two straight wins.
“They came back out, had some good practices and got themselves ready to play,” Muller said.“Our seniors are playing with a sense of urgency, and the other guys are following.”
The late start, a combination of the outdoor hockey doubleheader Saturday at adjacent TD Ameritrade Park and ESPN2's broadcast of the basketball game, will force both teams to adjust their schedules. Muller doesn't think it will be a problem for his team.
“Our guys like to sleep,” he said. “It's going to give them a couple of extra hours to nap.”
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