What a difference a week can make in the world of college basketball. It seems like just yesterday the Creighton Bluejays were soaring, with just 2 losses all season while playing some of the best, most inspiring basketball seen by the program in at least a decade.
The Jays, led by the stellar play of sophomore phenom Doug McDermott, had climbed all the way to 12th and 13th place in the major college polls. ESPN braketologists had the Jays pegged as high as a #3 seed for the Big Dance. This was all the makings of a dream season for the Creighton program. Then the alarm clock went off and the Jays hit snooze.
The nightmare began with a Feb. 4th trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where the Jays were stunned 65-62 when Northern Iowa’s Anthony James drilled a step-back buzzer beater. Three nights later Evansville dealt the Jays another upset loss as Creighton’s shooting turned ice cold and its’ hold on the conference lead slipped away.
A big shot at redemption was waiting last Saturday when the Wichita State Shockers came calling at the CenturyLink Center. The Shockers had taken over the top spot in the Valley while the Jays stumbled, but with a win Creighton would climb back into a share of the lead. The Jays already topped the Shocks 68-61 back on New Year’s Eve in Wichita and this one figured to be the game of the year.
A sellout crowd of 18,735, largest in arena and school history, showed up eager to see the Jays turn things around. The only thing spinning at the end were the Jay’s heads and the turnstiles, as throngs of fans headed to the exits with over 5 minutes to play as Wichita was on its’ way to a 89-68 demolition, all but clinching the Valley regular season title and sending Creighton to its worst home loss since 1995.
“We never made it happen tonight. That’s solely on us as players not doing our job, and that’s not the way Creighton plays,” said junior guard Grant Gibbs, “ We’ve got to regroup and get back to playing defense. Our effort has got to be a lot better, and we’ve got to stay together as a group. I could name a million things but it starts with caring more and playing harder.”
It would also help if the Jays could regain their shooting touch. Before the slide, Creighton led the nation in both field goal % and three-point field goal %. The Jays were also averaging a second best 18.2 assists per game leading to the eighth best scoring output of 81 points per contest. The shooting numbers since then are barely suitable for a family newspaper. The Jays went 2-22 beyond the arc against Evansville and 5-23 versus Wichita.
As team’s have focused on plugging up the middle, often double-teaming McDermott and junior center Gregory Echenique inside, the Jays have made them pay all season, countering with an outside arsenal of sharp shooters. Suddenly and surprisingly the hot shooting has turned cold, and no one seems to know why.
“We are a tougher group of guys then to miss a few shots and all of the sudden we’re not playing defense and rebounding,” said Gibbs, “That’s what is as disappointing as anything, that we’re not tough enough to suck it up if we’re missing a couple of shots and play our game and make other stuff happen. ”
One thing the Jays no longer have to worry about is the target on their back from being a ranked team as the skid has dropped them out of the rankings and into the category of bubble teams looking to enhance their resume as post-season looms.
“I know a lot of people think our balloon has been popped, but it’s a long season and you aren’t going to always play your best, ” said sophomore guard Jahenns Manigat, “Now it’s just a question of how we deal with it.”
This Saturday night’s Bracketbuster tilt versus Long Beach State, as well as the upcoming Missouri Valley Conference Tournament suddenly have become even more important for the Jays to salvage their dream of punching a ticket to the Big Dance come March. Long Beach State has played one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules while compiling a 19-6 record. The 49ers are riding a 12 game winning streak after last weekend and lead the Mountain West conference, so a win by the Jays would help restore some confidence and bolster their status as the season winds down.
Only a pair of conference games remain after that before the Valley tournament kicks off March 1st at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. History has shown anything can happen once Arch Madness kicks in, with the Valley regular season champ often stumbling in St. Louis, but in order for the Jays to turn things around according to their coach, they are going to have to turn it up a notch.
“There’s a lot of things you can’t control in this game. You can’t control the bounce of the ball, you can’t control the referees whistle, you can’t control if your shot is going to fall,“ said head coach Greg McDermott, “but you can control your effort and your ability to communicate…and that has disappeared for us at times lately.”
Creighton hosts Long Beach State at 9:00 p.m. Sat. Feb 18 at CenturyLink Center before closing the home season against Evansville Tuesday Feb. 21. The Long Beach games is part of ESPN’s Bracketbuster event and will be shown nationally on ESPN2.