Published Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 12:01 am / Updated at 7:17 pm
basketball
Pivovar: Fitting in? The Big East's newcomers are standing out

One of the storylines heading into the basketball season was whether mid-major graduates Creighton, Xavier and Butler could hold their own in the big, bad world of the Big East.

Xavier coach Chris Mack touched on that last spring when he discussed his program's move to the new league with The World-Herald.

“The competition from top to bottom is going to be unique for all of us,” Mack said. “It's going to be a heavy challenge.”

It's much too early to draw sweeping conclusions, but it appears that challenge is being met. Creighton, with its veteran team and the country's best player in Doug McDermott, is tied with Villanova for the Big East lead. Mack's Musketeers have been the only league foe to keep the Bluejays from winning by double digits.

Xavier has won four of its first five games, with two of the wins coming over the teams — Marquette and Georgetown — that were considered the bluebloods of the new league.

Butler has struggled in the early going: Tuesday's loss to Creighton left the Bulldogs 0-5 in league play. It could be argued, though, that Butler is a handful of possessions away from being 3-2, since three of the Bulldogs' five losses have come in overtime.

“We knew going into the Big East that each game was going to be difficult, that there were going to be no gimme games,” Butler coach Brandon Miller said after Tuesday's 88-60 loss to Creighton. “Every time you step on the floor, you're playing a game where anybody can beat you.

“The reality of us five games in is that we've played four really close basketball games, and we've been in every game except for this one. Our team has competed. We play extremely hard, but the result hasn't been what we wanted it to be in any of the five.”

Miller's team faced the biggest jump among the three newcomers to the reconfigured Big East. Two seasons ago, the Bulldogs were playing in the Horizon League.

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Sure, they put together a couple of feel-good runs that had them playing for national championships in 2010 and 2011, but the reality was that Butler had a lot of gimme games in the Horizon.

Creighton and Xavier also had their share of such games in the Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10. That was supposed to change with the move to a stage where the participants were bigger, stronger and faster.

Instead, Creighton opened conference play with wins of 18, 13 and 19 points over three of the Big East's old guard — Marquette, Seton Hall and DePaul. Xavier's first league win came by 10 points over a St. John's team that many observers drool over for its collection of physical talent. All those recruiting stars have produced no wins and four losses for the Red Storm.

It's becoming apparent that the new schools aren't the only ones being forced to adjust. Those old Big East teams will have to figure out how to match up with the newcomers that might be short on physical talent but long on basketball instincts.

“Everyone is new to us, and we're new to them as well,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “I think we've probably benefited somewhat from people having not played us before, and we just have to keep making sure we're improving to the point where that continues to be a positive.”

McDermott said the reality of competing in the new league has matched his perceptions going in. Yes, the players are bigger and more athletic, and Creighton will eventually need to narrow the gaps.

What the Bluejays can't do, McDermott said, is sacrifice the culture that has been built over the past two decades.

“We would like to continue to recruit players that have a skill set that allows them to pass, dribble and shoot,” he said. “At the same time, we understand that you have to have enough length and athletic ability to counter what we're going to face night in and night out in this league.”

Xavier's Mack cautions against drawing too many conclusions based on a small sample size of results. In his team's case, three of the Musketeers' first four games came against teams — Marquette, Butler and Creighton — with which they at least had some kind of history.

“I'll be interested to see some of the venues we'll have to play at and some of the athletes we'll have to face,” Mack said. “I think I'll be able to fairly answer that after we've experienced that.”

In the meantime, he'll treasure the new experiences this year the way fans are at his school, Butler and Creighton.

“From Xavier's standpoint, it's been really exciting,” Mack said. “The new uniforms, the teams we've followed from afar walking into our arena, has been a great thing for our program.”

Contact the writer: Steven Pivovar

stevepivovar@hotmail.com    |   402-679-2298    |  

Steven Pivovar is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and primarily covers Creighton athletics and the College World Series.

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