7:00 PM EST, FS1 – Line: Butler -6.5, Over/Under: 175
Big East foes collide tonight at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as the sixteenth-ranked Butler Bulldogs host the twenty-second-ranked Creighton Blue Jays for possession of Second Place in the conference. At the moment, Creighton (19-3, 6-3 in Big East) trails fourth-ranked Villanova by just one game in the league, as they look to leapfrog the Bulldogs in the standings. After sustaining consecutive losses for the first time this season, punctuated by an embarrassing 71-51 loss at Georgetown, Greg McDermott’s charges managed to right the ship over the weekend in overwhelming Last Place DePaul in an 83-66 drubbing. The hosts started strong establishing a healthy 44-29 lead by the midway point en route to shooting a blistering 55.8% from the field, assisting on all but nine of their twenty-nine field goals. Four different Blue Jays finished the night in double-figures, led by Khyri Thomas (11.7 PTS, 51.0% FG, 5.7 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.5 STL), who scored eighteen points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field (50.0%), along with seven rebounds, six assists, and a pair of steals. Marcus Foster (18.2 PTS, 48.8% FG, 2.5 REB, 1.8 AST) added another fifteen points on 6-of-14 shooting (42.9%)with another four rebounds, five assists, and a steal, while Justin Patton’s (14.0 PTS, 71.4% FG, 6.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.6 BLK) contribution consisted of fourteen points on limited attempts (4-of-6), five rebounds, a steal and a block. However, while this team is certainly no stranger to offensive fireworks, it was their play on the defensive end of the court that was arguably the biggest takeaway from Saturday’s victory; Creighton relegated the visiting side to a mere 37.7% shooting from the field, while outrebounding them thirty-four to twenty-six, while harassing them into thirteen turnovers. After their last two opponents ran through them like tissue paper, McDermott had to have been pleased with his team’s renewed focus in this regard. And they’ll need to maintain that focus if they wish to once more get the best of the Bulldogs, whom they defeated 75-64 back on January 11th; much like the trouncing of DePaul, they jumped out to a huge lead early, leading 47-27 at Halftime, shooting a torrid 55.4% from the floor, including a demonstrative 72.7% from within the three-point arc. However, (apart from changing venues) there is one major difference from that meeting and this one: Senior Point Guard Maurice Watson (12.9 PTS, 50.8% FG, 46.9% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 8.4 AST, 1.5 STL), who scored a game-high twenty-one points on 9-of-14 shooting (64.3%), while recording four rebounds, seven assists, and a steal that day, is out for the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL two weeks ago. The diminutive Guard led the nation in assists (8.4), making him a huge component of McDermott’s prolific offensive attack, and it any coincidence that his team has struggled so in the time since unfortunately losing their leader? Watson was masterful at running the offense, getting his teammates the ball in advantageous positions, while serving as the communicative link on both ends of the court, and quite frankly Creighton has looked lost without him. Barring the victory over DePaul (8-13, 1-7 in Big East), the Blue Jays have found it difficult to thwart their opponent’s efforts; Marquette totaled a staggering 102 points against them last week on a ridiculous 60.0% shooting, which quite frankly most teams would be adverse to match, while even Georgetown (12-10, 3-6 in Big East) proved too much to handle. Without Watson piloting the ship, McDermott has employed a committee-like approach to the position, with the aforementioned Thomas sharing duties with Senior Guard Isaiah Zierden (4.8 PTS, 46.9% FG, 46.4% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 0.6 AST).
Meanwhile, if Butler (18-4, 7-3 in Big East) wishes to keep within striking distance of conference-leading Villanova, then they’re going to have to find a way to rebound from a pair of miserable defeats. As we mentioned earlier when these teams met just three weeks ago, the visiting Bulldogs were not treated warmly in their trip to CenturyLink Center, as Creighton bested them in a 75-64 battle. Chris Holtmann’s charges struggled all night on both ends of the court, particularly in their attempts of keeping pace with the Blue Jays’ potent attack; the visiting side shot a dreadful 41.3% from the floor, including just 8-of-25 from beyond the arc (32.0%), while dishing only one more assist (eleven) than they committed turnovers (ten). However, the most peculiar statistic remained the fact that no member of their Starting Five managed to score in double-figures, with only Avery Woodson (8.0 PTS, 41.7% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 0.9 AST) totaling more than nine points, logging fourteen off the bench. With that said, this team’s periodic struggles offensively are really nothing new, for during conference play they ‘ve been largely middle of the pack in terms of shooting percentages, netting 45.1% of their attempts overall (6th in Big East) and 33.8% of their opportunities from downtown (6th in Big East), while dishing out just 10.8 assists per game (9th in Big East). Whereas Creighton epitomizes their namesake by flying up and down the floor with ease, Butler goes out of their way to slow things down, disrupting the flow of the game, which is really the only way they’re able to get the upper hand. Holtmann has turned this group into a pesky one on the defensive end, yielding just 71.2 points per game in league play (2nd in Big East) on 45.1% shooting from the floor (5th in Big East), including a solid 32.4% from three (3rd in Big East), while leading the Big East in rebounding (33.6) and posting it’s best Turnover Differential (Plus-2.8). Junior Forward Kelan Martin (16.6 PTS, 41.1% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 1.3 AST) has been the primary weapon on Offense, leading the Bulldogs in scoring, rebounding, and three-pointers made (forty-three). He’ll be looking for redemption after putting forth what was clearly his most disappointing performance of the campaign in the prior loss to Creighton; Martin scored just seven points on a dreadful 3-of-14 shooting (21.4%) despite logging twenty-seven minutes of play, the only time he’s been relegated below ten points all year. It was a decisively different story in last weekend’s meeting with Georgetown, as the Junior scored a game-high twenty-two points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), including 3-of-6 from long range (50.0%), with four rebounds, a pair of assists, and a steal, though in a losing effort. As we mentioned earlier, this would be the other (and most recent) defeat that Butler must rebound from, a narrow 85-81 loss at home, where their fourteen-game winning streak was promptly snapped. Indeed, you’d have been hard-pressed to recognize this team as defense was little more than an afterthought, as the home side shot a scorching 54.5% from the field, knocking down seven of their eighteen attempts from beyond the arc (38.9%) and dishing out sixteen assists. However, as well as they shot the ball, the Hoyas were that much better; truly, it must have been like throwing a beach ball in the ocean for the visitors, who made an unconscious 63.8% of their attempts, including half of their twenty shots from deep, with three different players ending the night in double-figures.