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BASKETBALL

Is Creighton's Marcus Zegarowski the Big East’s most improved player?

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Marcus Zegarowski

Marcus Zegarowski had 17 points, five rebounds and three assists in Tuesday's victory against Marquette. “Zegarowski’s probably the most improved player in our conference," said Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski.

The Big East coaches will submit their votes for the individual awards in a couple of weeks. Marcus Zegarowski may very well have a chance to take home one of the honors.

Well, at least he caught one opposing coach’s attention after scoring 17 points to help Creighton defeat Marquette 73-65 Tuesday.

“Zegarowski’s probably the most improved player in our conference,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said.

The 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard definitely was a difference-maker for the Bluejays on Tuesday, especially when they were searching for ways to counter Marquette’s extended pressure defense.

The Golden Eagles didn’t want to give up 3-pointers. And they had a shot-blocker protecting the rim. That left the middle of the floor open.

Zegarowski made them pay.

All seven of his made shots came inside the arc. He hit a couple of floaters, nailed some midrange jumpers and got to the rim for layups. When the defense converged on him, Zegarowski found teammates. He ended up with three assists but had several other on-target passes that set up good looks.

Arguably his best play of the game came with CU ahead 65-60 with less than two minutes left.

Marquette’s Koby McEwen, who’s a lanky 6-4, picked up Zegarowski at the opposite free-throw line — and hounded him. There was body contact. McEwen had his hand on Zegarowski’s hip, swiping at the ball a couple of times, too.

Zegarowski was unfazed. He dribbled to the block, set his feet and found a cutting Damien Jefferson, whose in-the-paint bucket gave Creighton a 67-60 lead.

“I just take what the defense gives me,” Zegarowski said during the press conference afterward. “I’m blessed to play with a lot of great players who help spread the floor. I just try to get in there and make the right play, whether that’s drawing two and kicking it — or if they stay, I’ll take the shot.”

Case in point: He had one 3-point attempt Tuesday, the fewest for him in a game this year.

But he was always on the attack. That may be where he’s evolved the most in Year 2, and why opposing teams are often assigning their best perimeter defender to guard him. The statistics may not suggest a dramatic improvement — 10.4 points and 3.4 assists per game as a freshman; 15.8 points and 5.2 assists this year — but his ability to read defenses and run Creighton’s offense has been integral in the Jays’ success.

Other likely contenders for the Big East’s most improved player award: Seton Hall’s Romaro Gill (Big East blocks leader), Seton Hall’s Quincy McKnight (second in the league in assists), Villanova’s Collin Gillespie (16.2 ppg), Villanova’s Saddiq Bey (best 3-point shooter in the conference at 45.1%), Providence’s David Duke (12.4 ppg) and Georgetown’s Mac McClung (16.4 ppg).

Some additional notes on the Creighton-Marquette game:

» Junior Ty-Shon Alexander limited the nation’s leading scorer Tuesday, holding Markus Howard to a Big East-low 13 points. Howard has scored fewer than 20 points in league play just four times — twice against CU. Creighton coach Greg McDermott said after the game that Alexander deserves more credit.

“He’s done a good job on everybody all year, and he doesn’t get talked about enough, frankly,” McDermott said. “He does a good job of anticipating. He does a fairly good job of avoiding screens. And he does a good job of staying on the floor (and avoiding fouls).

“Ty-Shon Alexander’s a really, really good defender. He’s been the best defender from an effective field goal percentage in our league, and it’s not even close.”

» Here's what Alexander said on the postgame radio show about getting nailed on a screen (shoulder to his throat) early in the second half: "I was trying to chase (Howard) and somehow he just hit me right in my Adam's apple. ... I was coughing a little bit. I could barely breathe. But I knew I just had to come back and play."

» Marquette definitely had some good, in-rhythm looks from 3-point range Tuesday. Those shots did not fall with consistency. A lot of that was by design for Creighton, which always had a help defender ready to swarm to Howard and/or be extra-conscious about protecting the paint. So it gave up jumpers, often to lower-percentage shooters.

In the end, 33 of the Golden Eagles’ 61 field goal tries came from behind the 3-point line (54.1%). As CU has often done this season, it lured its opponent into settling for jump shots too often. Said Wojciechowski: “We wanted to try to attack the paint more, get in there and get fouled.”

» Creighton has assisted on 59.1% of its field goals during Big East play, which leads the league. But over the last two games? The Jays’ assist rate is an impressive 71.0%. As the season has progressed, they've been sharing the ball more.

» CU did have to adjust to Marquette’s aggressiveness and its length on defense. It took 10 minutes, too. The Jays missed 12 of their first 17 field goals — and four of those attempts were blocked. But after that, during the game’s final 30 minutes, they shot 54.6% from the field.

» Creighton improved its Big East road record to 5-3. Its final away game of the regular season is at St. John’s on March 1. If the Jays win, they’ll have their best road record in league play since joining the conference (previous best was 5-4).

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