The sample size is small, and there is a lot of basketball to be played.
But wins — all by double digits — against three of the Big East’s old guard have reinforced with Creighton’s players and coaches that they might not need a massive overhaul in philosophy to compete in their new league.
“There are many, many ways to be successful playing this game,” said Steve Merfeld, the Bluejays’ director of basketball development. “The Creighton way has proven itself to be successful over the long haul.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we don’t want to reinvent the wheel just because we’re in the Big East.”
There had been considerable discussion leading up to the season how Creighton, Butler and Xavier would fare as they started trading elbows with the seven holdover teams from the old Big East that, in general, were considered more athletic.
Butler, which lost its top three scorers from last season, has struggled to a 0-3 start to league play. Meanwhile, Creighton and Xavier — which meet Sunday afternoon at the CenturyLink Center — have each posted three wins and are tied with Villanova for the conference lead.
The Bluejays and Musketeers own victories over Marquette, the preseason favorite and a team considered one of the most physically gifted in the league. Creighton made its Big East debut by humbling the Golden Eagles 67-49, while Xavier posted an 86-79 win over Marquette on Thursday.
“People are quick to write off the Butlers and Xaviers and us just because we’re not as athletic,” Creighton guard Isaiah Zierden said. “Even though we’re not the greatest athletes, we’re going to come out here every day and try to outwork the other teams.
“I think these first three games have shown us that we can compete in this league.”
Creighton has outrebounded each of its three opponents, including plus-18 on the boards in its recent road games with Seton Hall and DePaul. The Bluejays also have held their own on defense, forcing more turnovers than they committed and limiting Marquette and DePaul to below 41 percent shooting from the field.
Seton Hall shot 45.2 percent, but the Pirates got just 42 shots and made two field goals in the game’s last 17 minutes.
“We know we can score with any team, but it’s all been on the defensive end of the floor,” Creighton forward Doug McDermott said. “We’re showing the results. We’ve outrebounded opponents in these first three Big East games.
“If we don’t do those things, we’re not going to be winning by double digits. We’re on a good little roll here, and we’re going to keep it going.”
McDermott said the team’s first three Big East games were about as physical as games in the Missouri Valley Conference, their old league. Teammate Avery Dingman agreed, adding that teams from the Valley also stressed opponents in different ways.
“The Valley was an extremely competitive league,” Dingman said. “It gave up a little in athleticism, but the skill level and execution by teams were a little higher. It balances it out a little.”
Creighton’s offensive skills gave it the same kind of advantage in the Valley that it owns in its new league. After his team gave up 79 points to the Bluejays, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard complimented Creighton on its ability to get the shots it wants when it wants them.
Shot-making has been the backbone of CU’s three-season run in which it ranked as one of the nation’s most productive offenses. It will remain a benchmark of future recruiting efforts, coach Greg McDermott said.
“We like to have guys that can shoot because that maybe makes us a little bit different,” he said. “Shooting is a tremendous skill to have in this game. There are guys that can run and jump and touch the top of the square. Certainly, we need a few more of those guys as well, but shooting is a great equalizer.
“It spaces the floor and gives guys an opportunity to get to the basket because there’s more space and less traffic. We want to keep getting players that can shoot the ball and have high basketball IQs.”
That latter characteristic is one the Bluejays take great pride in. Though it was just one game, basketball instincts probably made the difference in the win over Marquette.
The Golden Eagles are a poor 3-point shooting team, but instead of getting the ball inside where they might have been able to use their edge in athleticism, they repeatedly settled for questionable midrange jumpers.
Marquette shot 35.8 percent from the field. It held Creighton to 40.3 percent shooting, but the Bluejays got the shots they wanted by making the extra pass. They finished with 19 assists on 25 baskets.
Growing up, Zierden said, his father, who has coached in the NBA and WNBA, stressed the value of the “hockey assist.” It’s the pass that sets up the pass that leads to a basket that can provide a team with a huge advantage.
“Guys here don’t mind not getting the assist, but they’re making that pass that leads to the assist,” Zierden said. “It’s the little things like that that really add up.”
Experience also provides the Bluejays with an equalizer. Creighton has a sixth year senior in Grant Gibbs, currently out a month with a knee injury, and a fifth-year player in Ethan Wragge.
Doug McDermott has started every game of his career, and fellow senior Jahenns Manigat became a starter midway through his freshman season. Point guard Austin Chatman is in his second season of starting, while Dingman and Will Artino are well-seasoned reserves.
“This group has been together,” Merfeld said. “We’ve thrown a few players in the mix over the last three years, but when you only have to do that with a few guys, it’s a lot easier than when you have to replace four or five like we will next year.”
Next season, some observers think, will provide more of a litmus test for the Bluejays as four seniors move on. As daunting as it will be to replace those players, Merfeld said, the culture Creighton is cultivating with its younger players could prove vital in making the next step.
He compared the scenario to when he was the coach at Hampton. In his fourth season (2000-01), Hampton scored one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history when, as a No. 15 seed, it knocked off second-seeded Iowa State in the first round.
“We were super talented that year, but we lost 75 percent of our scoring,” Merfeld said. “The next year, we weren’t as talented, but that group just believed it was supposed to win.
“They wound up being a better team than the team that was more talented.”