“I’m not angry. I’m disappointed.”
As a new father, I’m sure I’ll eventually have to bust out that heart-crushing line with my son at some point. Hopefully it is far down the road. I couldn’t help but feel that way as I watched the Missouri State Bears run triumphantly off Creighton’s home court, a road win tightly tucked under their collective arm. The third-largest crowd in CU history largely left before the Bears did, taking with them a mix of anger, frustration, and disappointment. That’s what hung with me as I left my seats.
Winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship outright was always going to be difficult this season. Creighton is better this year than last. So is the rest of the conference, top to bottom. Look no further than the first games for each team: Illinois State knocked down Northern Iowa, Drake decimated Indiana State, and Missouri State stole a game in Omaha. So it is disappointing that a team that’s looked dominant at times in November and December would drop a home league game.
The Jays looked discombobulated from the opening tip, never really getting in the offensive rhythm on which they’ve predicated their early season success. Defensively they were a mess for major portions of the night. Combine those functions with the furious second half play of Kyle Weems and the breakout game for Anthony Downing, and it was going to take some late game heroics for the Bluejays to pull out a victory. But instead of Doug McDermott or Antoine Young stepping up, or Ethan Wragge knocking down a big three-pointer, Downing and Weems made the clutch plays to ice a valuable road win for Paul Lusk and the Bears.
There is little room for error when you are a non-power conference team trying to build a resume worthy of consideration come March. Home losses don’t help. And staring at a trip to Wichita State on New Year’s Eve, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the Bluejays give up a home game but steal one a few days later against one of the Valley’s best teams.
There are a few CU fans I chat with on a regular basis whose biggest beef with Dana Altman before he left was the inability for his teams to close out regular season league championships. After a 10-1 start and the publicity that followed, it seemed that the Bluejays were primed to prove the league preseason voters right and capture a championship. But they’re already playing from behind, after one league game, and it will take an exceptional effort in Kansas Saturday to avoid what could be a death knell to the team’s championship goals. That’s why I’m disappointed: barring an upset against the Shockers, the Jays are likely headed to an 0-2 start. The last Valley team to start 0-2 but win the league? Illinois State in 1992-93.
Here are a few more thoughts while wondering just how boisterous the crowd will be at Koch Arena Saturday evening.
Winning a conference championship begins at home.
The last four outright league championships each lost three games. Missouri State lost one conference home game last season en route to a Valley title. Drake lost one league home game in 2007-2008 before winning the conference championship. Northern Iowa didn’t drop a home Valley game in 2009-10, and neither did the 2006-07 Southern Illinois squad — both league champs.
Meanwhile, Creighton can’t avoid multiple slip-ups in Omaha. Jays fans could always count on the Salukis coming to the Qwest Center and leaving with a victory (four wins in the arena’s first four years of existence). But in three of those four years, the SIU game was Creighton’s only league home loss.
In each of the past four seasons, as Saluki basketball faded into irrelevance (it is great to be able to type that, honestly), the Bluejays have lost two home Valley games. In 2008-09, when they split the league championship with Northern Iowa, the Jays could have won it outright had they not slipped up against Drake or UNI at home. Sure, they stole a game at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, but the fact that the Panthers and Bluejays split the title and UNI had three home losses that season is even more frustrating.
League champs rarely lose conference games at home. One game here or there can be the difference between hanging a banner and heading to Arch Madness as anything other than the #1 seed. Aside from becoming world-beaters on the road, Creighton must defend the home court the rest of the season if they want a legitimate chance at a championship.
Missouri State stole momentum as the first half ended and the second began.
Jahenns Manigat made only one shot against the Bears, a three-pointer that gave Creighton a 7-point lead (34-27) with just under two and a half minutes to play in the first half. Over those final two minutes and the first five minutes of the second half, Missouri State went on a 16-5 run to take a 4-point lead. Doug McDermott scored all 5 of those points, but couldn’t get any other offensive help. Meanwhile, MSU’s Downing scored 7 of his career-high 26 points during that stretch, and Weems started to warm up — 25 of his career-high 31 points came in the second stanza.
As things started to open up a bit more for Missouri State on offense, the Bears clamped down on McDermott defensively. The sensational sophomore had to work through physical defense every time Creighton tried to operate its half-court offense, and despite his 19 points McDermott never really got into an extended rhythm. He hit a three-pointer to give CU at 51-50 lead with just under 11 minutes to play, but that would prove to be McDermott’s last field goal make of the night (on just three more attempts). When your best player manages to attempt only three shots while his team’s trailing in crunch time, all you can do is tip your cap to the defense. And the Bears were stout.
Subpar games from multiple players may not happen most nights.
Statistics tend to inflate during non-conference play, especially when the level of competition isn’t as tough or as familiar with an opponent as that team’s conference brethren might be. Still, to say starters Grant Gibbs, Jahenns Manigat, and Gregory Echenique had off nights on the same night is putting it lightly. For just the second time this season, Gibbs has more turnovers (4) than assists (3). He’s 3 for his last 13 from the field over 3 games. Meanwhile, Young shot it 13 times against Missouri State alone, making just 3 field goals. Many of his shots were against two or three Bears, the result of no one else being open on offense and Young trying to make a play. Echenique was under the weather, played only 20 minutes, and was relatively ineffective (1-2 from the field, 2-4 from the free throw line, 3 rebounds) considering MSU’s center Caleb Patterson was in foul trouble most of the night. And Manigat made just that previously mentioned trey, following an 11-point, 4-rebound performance against Northwestern with a 3-point, 3-board effort against Missouri State.
Josh Jones added a spark off the bench (11 points, including 3 three-pointers), playing perhaps the best defense of any Creighton perimeter player all night. And Ethan Wragge connected on a few bombs as well. But aside from Jones’ season-high 21 minutes and Austin Chatman (12 minutes) playing more against MSU than he did in his previous two games combined (9 minutes total), Greg McDermott shortened the bench.