Published Friday, November 9, 2012 AT 12:12 AM / Updated at 12:29 AM
Bluejays want to make Mitchell earn what he gets
Steven Pivovar Omaha World-Herald

Trying to stop, or at slow down, North Texas’ Tony Mitchell figures to be job one for Creighton’s basketball team in Friday night’s season opener.

Mitchell is the Mean Green’s uber-talented 6-foot-8 sophomore. He averaged 14.7 points a game as a freshman but is capable of delivering far greater damage if the Bluejays are unable to keep him from getting on a roll.

So how does Creighton intend to defend Mitchell?

“We have to try to keep him off the boards and limit his easy ones,’’ Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “We have to try to limit what he gets in transition and keep him off the free-throw line. If we can do that, I’ll feel that we’ve made him earn what he gets.

“He’s a very talented athlete and a gifted basketball player. It will be a challenge for us.’’

The initial challenge of defending Mitchell probably will go to Creighton center Gregory Echenique but there likely could be times when the Mean Green star is matched up against Bluejay All-American Doug McDermott. He and Mitchell were teammates on the United States’ under-19 team two summers ago.

What makes the challenge even more imposing is that North Texas, like Creighton, has surrounded their star players with capable scorers. Six other Mean Green players averaged between 7.0 and 14.1 points last season.

“A lot of people don’t know much about them but they’re a really good team,’’ Doug McDermott said. “They have a really good point guard in Chris Jones, a really good wing and Tony Mitchell inside. It should be an up-and-down game because they like to run, too.’’

To prepare for North Texas’ running game, the Bluejays have drilled extensively on their transition defense. In one five-on-five drill, a sixth player is stationed at halfcourt and joins the offensive team as it pushed the ball up court.

“We have to get back and defend them really fast,’’ McDermott said. “We’ve been working on that but we also know that if they’re going to run it at us, we can run it right back at them to get them even more tired.’’

Creighton placed a lot of offseason emphasis on improving its defense but not at the expense of what made them successful a season ago. The Bluejays rode a high-powered offense to 29 wins and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

“We haven’t lost focus on who we are and what we’re good at,’’ Greg McDermott said. “We still have to be good offensively, and at the end of the day, we’re going to win games with our offense. We did last year and hopefully we can do that again.

“Defensively, I hope there are some subtle improvements. You are not going to see a major change because our personnel hasn’t changed. This could be an up-and-down game. North Texas likes to fly up and down the floor, and we’re certainly not going to slow it down on our home floor.’’

The opener ranks as one of Creighton’s more challenging first games in the past two decades. The Bluejays opened the 2009-10 season with a road game against a Dayton team that was ranked 21st nationally. The season before, they played a talented New Mexico team in Omaha but that was before Steve Alford really had things going in Lobo-Land.

Rick Johnson’s second Creighton team opened the 1992-93 season with a home game against Iowa State. Since then, there have been too many Towson States and Mississippi Valley States and Arkansas-Pine Bluffs to really get jacked up about opening night.

This one is different, Doug McDermott said.

“We haven’t had too many tough games to start off our seasons,’’ said McDermott, whose first two opening games as a Bluejay saw him face Alabama State and North Carolina A&T. “We have a huge test with this one.’’

About Steven Pivovar

Steven Pivovar is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and primarily covers Creighton athletics and the College World Series. You can follow Steven on Twitter (@PivOWH) or email him at spivovar@owh.com.