The 16th-ranked Creighton Bluejays look to continue to rise in the national rankings as they entertain the Evansville Purple Aces at CenturyLink Center Omaha in what will be the first taste of Missouri Valley Conference action for both sides.
The Purple Aces were defeated 75-67 by a tough opponent in Butler last Saturday, which moved them to 7-5 on the season. Evansville has held its own but come up short in matchups against elite foes such as Notre Dame (58-49), Colorado State (79-72), and Murray State (82-70). Coach Marty Simmons and his squad have not fared too well on the road with just one win in four tries. In their non-conference slate, the Purple Aces outscored their opposition by an average of 7.0 ppg in large part due to their positive 4.2 turnover differential.
Creighton will be making its first appearance this season without senior guard Josh Jones (7.0 ppg), who announced his retirement due to a heart condition on Thursday. The Bluejays will try to keep the ball rolling without their senior leader and extend their current five-game winning streak. Coach Greg McDermott's team has been arguably the top mid-major program in the nation this season as all 11 of its victories have come by double-digit margins, including decisions over Wisconsin (84-74), Saint Joseph's (80-51), California (74-64), and in its last appearance, Tulsa (71-54). Creighton's only loss of the season came in late November when it was shocked at home by Boise State. Creighton is averaging 78.9 ppg on 50.9 percent shooting with an average of 17.3 assists.
History is on the side of the hosts as Creighton owns a 27-10 all-time series lead versus Evansville, including a 15-2 mark in Omaha. The Bluejays have won eight of the past nine encounters between these MVC rivals.
Evansville played catch-up for the majority of its tilt at Butler and managed to narrow the deficit to just four points in the final minute, but the Bulldogs sank four free throws to end the threat. Senior swingman Colt Ryan netted a season-high 25 points to raise his team-best scoring average to 13.7 points per game. Senior guard Ned Cox, who is second on the squad with 11.6 ppg, added 12 points, but he and Ryan combined to go just 12-of-35 from the floor. The rest of the Purple Aces shot 13-of-26 thanks to sophomore forward Ryan Sawvell's efficient 5-of-7 outing that yielded 10 points. After he was held to just two points by Butler, look for a bounce back performance out of freshman guard D.J. Balentine, who had scored 15 or more points in three of his previous four games.
The Bluejays will provide any team they face with a difficult defensive task this season due to their First Team All-American forward Doug McDermott, who is the third leading scorer in Division I with 23.1 points per outing. The 6-8 junior superstar is a threat from anywhere on the floor with a 50.9 percent accuracy rate from 3-point range and is also grabbing 6.8 boards per game. Senior center Gregory Echenique, who led the MVC in blocked shots the past two years, is a big interior factor with 10.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game. Sophomore guard Austin Chatman is the only newcomer to this year's starting lineup, but he is fitting in just fine with 8.0 points and 4.2 assists per game which he is accompanying with a deadly 50.9 percent clip from beyond the arc.