Creighton might have proved some points by keeping teams at the Missouri Valley tournament from scoring on them.
A team often criticized for its defense relied on that part of the game to string together three victories and guarantee a return trip to the NCAA tournament. In the process, the Bluejays demonstrated they can do more than just try to outscore opponents.
“A lot of people say we’re just offensive-minded,” Creighton center Gregory Echenique said. “I think we showed a different aspect of who we can be and who we should be. I’m really excited because that shows what we can do as we move forward.”
No Bluejay stood taller on the defensive end of the court than the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Echenique. He blocked 13 shots and changed the course of countless others. His inside dominance dovetailed the work that guard Austin Chatman did on the perimeter.
“Good defense starts with the guy up on top that’s trying to keep the ball in front of him and with the guy underneath who can erase mistakes,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “During the weekend, both Gregory and Austin did a really good job.”
They had help as Creighton limited tournament opponents Drake, Evansville and Wichita State to an average of 53.7 points per game. The Bluejays held the three opponents to 32.4 percent field-goal shooting and 25.5 percent shooting from 3-point range. They also won the rebounding battle in two of the three games.
Creighton came into the tournament allowing 64.0 points, with opponents shooting 41.6 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from beyond the arc. While those numbers demonstrated improvement from a season ago, when Creighton ranked in the bottom third nationally in each of those statistical categories, the Bluejays were still dogged by the perception that they were soft on the defensive end.
“I think some of that is because we’ve been inconsistent defensively,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “I think what we did in St. Louis shows what we’re capable of. It all finally came together for a three-day period.”
Actually, it could be argued that the Bluejays have been putting the pieces together over the last three months. A season ago, Creighton ranked 242nd in scoring defense (69.7 points per game), 222nd in field-goal percentage defense (.441) and 264th in 3-point percentage defense (.361).
They’ve raised those standings this season to 85th in scoring defense (63.1), 82nd in field-goal percentage defense (.407) and 60th in 3-point percentage defense (.313).
“A lot of people don’t think we play much defense, but we showed that we can,” Creighton guard Jahenns Manigat said. “Defense is about confidence. Once you get a few stops in a row, you start feeling impenetrable. We felt that way all weekend.
“It’s all about being disciplined enough to carry it out. In St. Louis, we were as disciplined as we’ve been, in how we were guarding and helping each other out. We were as locked in as we’ve been in my three years here.”
No Bluejay was more locked in than Echenique. McDermott said the senior helped put teeth in the defense by making multiple plays on possessions. He’d hedge on screens, then hustle back to defend the area around the basket.
No series illustrated Echenique’s activity better than the one he turned in during the second half of the Wichita State game. He contested a layup by Shocker forward Jake White, then scrambled after the rebound headed out of bounds.
Echenique flipped the ball back, but Wichita State’s Carl Hall came up with it. He went up for a layup, but Echenique hustled back and blocked Hall’s shot.
“He was a monster,” Creighton forward Doug McDermott said. “That’s the reason our defense was so good, because Gregory had our backs. If anyone got beat off the dribble, he was right there to clean it up with a blocked shot.
“We just have to keep Gregory in that same frame of mind, and we’ll be fine.”
Chatman was equally effective on the perimeter, Greg McDermott said, especially in the wins over Drake and Evansville. Chatman had some rough moments trying to guard Wichita State’s Malcolm Armstead in the title game. In reviewing the videotape, McDermott said, Chatman did everything he could on a number of plays.
“Armstead just made some very tough shots,” McDermott said.
Chatman is considered Creighton’s best on-the-ball perimeter defender.
“He probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for what he does defensively,” Gibbs said. “He covers up a ton of stuff and covers a ton of ground with how quick he is and with his anticipation.”
Creighton, too, might not get as much credit as it deserves for its defensive improvement. The Bluejays are still painted as a team carried by its offense, but they know that’s only half right.
In the days leading up to its opening NCAA tournament game, Creighton will work on fine-tuning what it did defensively in St. Louis.
“There were some off-the-ball positioning issues,” Greg McDermott said. “There were some times last weekend where we weren’t where we needed to be. Having said that, we played as well defensively as we have all season.”
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