The Creighton men’s basketball team matched its overall win total and surpassed its number of conference wins from last season with a victory over a top-25 opponent at CenturyLink Center Omaha on Saturday.
The win against No. 18 Butler marked the 14th victory overall and fifth Big East win of the season for the Bluejays.
Last season, the Jays finished 4-14 in conference play and lost eight consecutive games to open the Big East schedule.
Because of their struggles last season — and only one returning starter on their roster — the Big East coaches picked the Jays ninth in the preseason poll.
Creighton, (14-7, 5-3 Big East), sits in a tie for fourth place following a loss to Georgetown on Tuesday.
“It feels good that we’re starting to prove people wrong, but I don’t think we can be unsatisfied or start to become complacent with everything,” junior forward Zach Hanson said. “It’s great to have some success, but obviously we have a lot to accomplish still so we just need to keep working.”
The Jays also opened the 2016 Big East slate with three consecutive victories away from Omaha. Last season, it took the Bluejays until Feb. 4 to win a conference road game.
Junior point guard Maurice Watson Jr. expressed how important it is to stay attentive after the early success.
“We lost eight games to start the conference last year and just because we’ve won five doesn’t mean we can’t lose eight in a row if we get complacent,” Watson said. “We have to keep approaching each game — next game is just another game to do what we do. [If] we don’t look ahead and we don’t look back and we just focus on the now then I think we’re going to be good.”
Watson spent last season with a front-row view to the struggles of losing 14 games in the 18-game conference slate. This season, the Boston University-transfer controls the Creighton offense. Watson did not participate in games last season because of transfer rules, but this season he leads the team in scoring, (14.0 per game), and assists, (6.5 per game), and scored a career-high 27 points against Georgetown on Jan. 5.
The Jays have not only matched their win total from last season, but also own 13 double-digit wins through 20 games. Despite this, the Bluejays are only 1-3 in games decided by less than 10 points.
Creighton’s 72-64 win against Butler marked its first victory by less than 10 points since defeating Marquette on Feb. 14, 2015, (77-70).
“We haven’t been in many close games,” coach Greg McDermott said. “When we were, we lost. This was one where it was close enough there at the end that we had to grind it out at the end and make some plays on both ends of the floor. The confidence you get from that is huge.”
Four of the Bluejays’ six losses have come at the hands of top-25 opponents, including three current top-10 teams: No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 6 Villanova and No. 10 Providence. The other two losses came by a combined five points.
Last season the Jays finished 3-10 in games decided by less than five points and lost seven games in which they held a lead or were tied in the final minute.
“A lot of games last year were lost like [against Butler] where we just weren’t tough enough — and we had a couple of close ones early in the season,” junior guard Isaiah Zierden said, “but I think we’ve done a great job of realizing what we can and can’t do and I think that we’ve grown together.”
Creighton managed to pick up a quality victory against Butler, but McDermott knows that his team cannot be content with its 5-3 start to Big East play.
“In this league it’s so fragile because the league is so competitive,” McDermott said. “You have to stay ready, you have to stay prepared, you have to stay in the moment and get ready for the next day because you can’t take a breath.”
On Monday, three Big East schools -- Villanova, Xavier and Providence -- earned spots in the top 10 of the weekly Associated Press top 25 Poll. Additionally, seven of the 10 teams in the conference have at least 13 wins overall.
Creighton lost at home to both Villanova and Providence during the first six games of this year’s conference schedule and has yet to play Xavier.
Zierden — who experienced a 27-8 season in Creighton’s first year in the Big East and the Bluejays’ first losing record in 18 seasons a year ago — knows the significance of being able to pick up more than one resume-building win.
“Anything about being successful is difficult because you can be successful one time,” Zierden said, “but can you do it over and over and be consistently successful is the key.”
The Bluejays’ early success is gaining praise from opposing coaches. Butler coach Chris Holtmann believes Creighton will make a case for the big dance.
“I’ve thought for a long time ‘I think they’re certainly a team that’s going to have a great shot to be an NCAA Tournament team’,” Holtmann said. “They’re big, they’re older, they’re physical, they’re well coached — they’re a good team.”
This is the fourth time in six seasons that McDermott has guided the Bluejays to at least a 5-2 record to start conference play. The previous three times Creighton made the NCAA Tournament.
The Jays will attempt to protect home court with three of its next four games at CenturyLink Center Omaha before having only two home contests over the final three weeks of the regular season.
Creighton is currently 9-3 at home with two of the three losses coming by a mere two points.
The Bluejays host Seton Hall on Saturday at 7:01 p.m. for the annual Pink Out game.
“We need to continue to do what we do and play ‘Creighton Basketball’,” Hegner said. “We can’t be satisfied with where we are; we have big dreams for this team and we’re going to do whatever it takes — and we’re going to do it together.”