Fellow Bluejays fans tried to convince me Saturday afternoon’s home game against Indiana State could be a trap. I understood. There’s always a possibility for a team to win an emotional, close game and follow it up with a letdown. Wednesday’s win at Missouri State served as the first part of the equation, and I considered the second possible when I saw the Sycamores hit the CenturyLink Center court in their powder blue Bird-era throwback jerseys.
But the Trees didn’t turn back the clock far enough. It seems like ages since ISU beat Creighton in Omaha, and they won’t do it any time soon playing the way they did for most of Saturday’s run-away CU win. The Sycs shot only 33% from the field, 25% from three-point range, and 68% from the charity stripe. They were outrebounded 39-31 and committed more turnovers (12) than assists (10), and they were outscored off mistakes 19-6. Greg Lansing had no help from his backups, as the Bluejays Bench Mob outscored the Sycamores reserves 36-18.
But give Indiana State credit. The afternoon set up well for star sophomore Doug McDermott to introduce his game to a national television audience. ESPN2 was in the house, ready to heap praise on McDermott. But the Sycamores decided to force Creighton players other than Dougie Fresh to beat them, hounding McDermott with double and triple teams. ISU held him to a season-low 12 points and forced him to commit 3 turnovers. But McDermott helped in other ways, by grabbing 11 rebounds for the second time in three games and swinging the ball away from him and toward open shooters. His teammates did the rest.
If casual basketball fans tuned in to watch McDermott and get a feel for how the sophomore All American candidate can take over a game, they instead saw the real reason the Bluejays might be a tough out come March. The Jays spread the ball around beautifully, assisting 17 times on 24 made field goals while turning it over just 10 times. Seven of Creighton’s 14 first half field goals came from beyond the three-point arc, as the Bluejays effectively buried the Sycamores in an avalanche of long-range shooting. Jahenns Manigat, Josh Jones, and Ethan Wragge each made two treys in the first half, while Grant Gibbs added one, and CU headed to the break up 42-25. An 8-minute dry spell late in the game cost Creighton a chance to truly decimate the Sycamores (the Jays only scored 7 points from the 8:40 mark until Taylor Stormberg hit a shot with less than a minute to play), but by then the afternoon had taken on the feel of an early season non-conference game against a cupcake opponent. It was anything but a trap; in fact, the outcome and the way the Bluejays got there probably serves as more frightening to opponents than would a career night by McDermott.
Meanwhile, Wichita State defeated Southern Illinois handily, leaving the Shockers and Bluejays tied atop the Missouri Valley Conference at 8-1. Halfway through league play Creighton has matched its 8-1 start from 2001-2002, and is just a few wins away from matching the 2002-2003 team’s 12-1 opening to MVC play. The Bluejays and Shockers seem poised to push each other down the stretch in search of an outright Valley championship, something that WSU hasn’t won since 2006 and CU hasn’t claimed since 200. Trap games may exist (book it; the Bluejays will lose at Evansville), but neither team has shown a dent in the armor aside from a single, close home loss to good teams.
A few more thoughts, while wondering if Wichita and Creighton can win out ahead of their February 11 showdown in Omaha.
The best part of the Bench Mob’s performance Saturday was the rest some starters received. Sure, the scoring is nice (36 points by the Bench Mob, the highest total since CU backups scored 45 points against Houston Baptist). But for starters McDermott (26 minutes), Gibbs (24), and Antoine Young (25) to play almost 5 minutes less than their season averages was critical considering the stretch of games the Bluejays have played in the last few weeks.
Never mind, I take that back. The best part of the Bench Mob’s performance was Taylor Stormberg, Matt Dorwart, and Ross Ferrarini making shots in the last few minutes of the game. The loudest cheer of the afternoon came when Ferrarini nailed a triple with 4 seconds left to give the Bluejays 75 points — and hook the fans up with free Godfather’s Pizza. Most of the spotlight shines on McDermott, Echenique, Antoine Young, and Grant Gibbs, but each of those guys would be the first to tout the efforts and abilities of Creighton’s bench players. They push the first 7 or 8 guys in the rotation hard each day in practice, and ultimately the team is better for it and for them being a part of the program. They deserve to knock down some shots, and against the Sycamores the buckets came in bunches.
Creighton looks comfortable with player rotations and playing time splits. Young and Gibbs combine to give the Bluejays the best two-player backcourt in the Valley. McDermott and Echenique combine to give teams fits in the frontcourt. Manigat and Jones are splitting time equally at the off-guard spot, Austin Chatman is finding more and more time as a backup, and snipers Ethan Wragge and Avery Dingman looking willing and able to aim at a 3-pointer at any time. Add Will Artino’s effective minutes in the post, and the rotation seems set. Roles are defined. Players know what to expect. And the team’s established identity allows for comfort on the court.