November 24, 2014

Losing an All-American who led the nation in scoring along with three other starters is not what any coach considers ideal, but a win over a ranked opponent during its 4-0 start has helped lift coach Greg McDermott and Creighton back into the spotlight.

Following their return to the Top 25, the No. 23 Bluejays open a busy week Tuesday night against Eastern Illinois in the second round of the Emerald Coast Classic.

After forward Doug McDermott - the coach's son who averaged 26.7 points last season - moved on to the NBA and fellow starters Grant Gibbs, Jahenns Manigat and Ethan Wragge graduated, it wasn't surprising to see Creighton largely written off during the preseason.

While the Bluejays retain a measure of experience with nine upperclassmen, they're also putting some faith in two sophomores and four freshmen.

An offense that hummed along with at least 80 points in the first six games last season has learned a measure of humility this season with 65 in each of the last two games. Creighton averaged 94 in its first two.

The defense, however, has been impressive - as Oklahoma can certainly attest to.

The Bluejays made a statement in their third game, rallying from an 18-point deficit to beat the then-No. 18 Sooners 65-63 on Wednesday - a loss which was the biggest factor in Oklahoma tumbling from the rankings Monday.

Creighton, which trailed by nine at halftime before outscoring Oklahoma 41-28 from there, avoided a letdown with a 65-45 first-round win over North Carolina Central on Sunday despite shooting 35.3 percent.

"I just like where we're at. I like the progress we're making," McDermott said. "I like that we found a way to win the last two games with defense when our offense isn't where it needs to be yet. And I think our offense will get better as the season goes on."

Sophomore Isaiah Zierden hit four 3-pointers and scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half, while senior Devin Brooks added 12 for the Bluejays, who led 27-22 at the break and went on a late 11-3 run to put the Eagles away.

The Sooners and Eagles combined to shoot 35.7 percent against Creighton, which is allowing 62.8 points per game after a 67.9 mark last season.

"To take a team like Oklahoma, to take a team like North Carolina Central, who are so disciplined and precise with what they do offensively, and have them shoot in the mid-30s is really a credit to our guys and their attention to detail and what we're trying to do," McDermott said.

Creighton won't get to spend too much time reveling in its newly minted status as a ranked team during a holiday week that features three games and a trip south.

The Emerald Classic shifts to Niceville, Florida, beginning Friday when Creighton takes on Ole Miss to cap a four-game slate that begins with Eastern Illinois facing N.C. Central. The field also includes Southern, Northern Arizona, Middle Tennessee and Cincinnati. The championship round is Saturday.

This contest against Eastern Illinois will also be the last at home until Dec. 9 for the Bluejays, who visit Tulsa on Dec. 3 and Nebraska four days later.

The Panthers (1-3) are coming off two straight defeats after falling 54-49 at Cincinnati in their Classic opener Sunday.

Trae Anderson and Reggie Smith scored 12 apiece for Eastern Illinois, which shot 29.5 percent but showed some mettle on defense with 10 steals and 19 forced turnovers.

The Panthers dropped their most recent matchup with a ranked team, losing 73-58 to No. 11 Murray State on Jan. 28, 2012. They're 0-11 against the Top 25 since November 1998.

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