My colleagues each referenced the chilly weather in their postgame recaps (here and here). I’ll go with the opposite adjective to describe last night, at least as the temperature felt in section 123 and throughout the Qwest Center: people were fired up, running warm with frustration about free throws, defense, and a multitude of other basketball basics on display (or not; your choice) by the Creighton Bluejays in a conference-opening loss to Northern Iowa.
I actually heard a few boos last night. Toward the end of the game, with the Bluejays headed to the free throw line for what seemed to be an inevitable miss, the crowd seemed to have two giant hands over its collective head, hoping/praying/fretting for someone, anyone to step to the FREE throw line and knock down a couple of shots in the clutch. Didn’t happen. But the heckling did. Not good.
Jays fans are hot under the collar, and rightfully so. I’ll give UNI plenty of credit; the Panther are exactly the type of team that can win a conference employing various methods. But they shot just about 10 percentage points worse from the field against the Jays (35%) than their season average (45%). They shot more than 10 percentage points worse from 3-point range (26%) than their season average (39%). They grabbed just half the amount of offensive rebounds (5) they normally average per game (11). In short, they didn’t play all that great. A home win against the league favorite was ripe for the picking. But the Bluejays season continued to slowly rot away.
Why? It didn’t help that the Jays scored just 9 points in the first 15 minutes of the game. Or that they scored just 11 points in the final 9 minutes of the game. So, for 16 minutes, Creighton was OK — 2 points per minute during that stretch. But the other 24 minutes (60% of the game)? 20 points. They dug themselves a hole in the first half, something Creighton fans have become accustomed to since the Qwest Center opened for the 2003-2004 season. The Cardiac Q has seen its fair share of comebacks by the home team, but does this team have the resolve to fight back from shooting 24% in the first half, including 20% from 3-point range?
It looked like it for awhile, thanks to Cavel Witter. The senior had his second straight stellar offensive game, putting the Jays on his slender shoulders and scoring 8 of the team’s 18 first-half points, 9 of their 34 second-half points, and 17 overall to lead CU in scoring for the second straight game. Creighton caved on a layup by Jordan Eglseder to start the second half, pushing the UNI lead to 9, but 4 straight points from Kenny Lawson paved the way for Witter to start hitting from the outside. By the time Casey Harriman stepped to the free throw line with 11:35 to play in the game, Creighton had erased the 9-point deficit and took the lead on two makes by Harriman. And when P’Allen Stinnett and Witter made back-to-back 3s to push the Bluejays to a 4-point lead, the home crowd was fired up.
Then the Panthers extinguished the flames. Witter’s 3-pointer forced Panther head coach Ben Jacobsen to call a 30-second timeout. Following that huddle, UNI went on a 10-2 run to reclaim a 4-point lead. In fact, immediately following the timeout, the Panthers ran two plays for Kwadzo Ahelegbe, who to that point hadn’t made a jump shot and was scoring only by going to the lane and drawing fouls. So, the two plays? Two designed drives to the hoop for Ahelegbe, resulting in two made free throws and a made layup. UNI wouldn’t trail again after tying the game at 41 with 8 to play.
Meanwhile, with Witter serving as Creighton’s only player who can seemingly get an outside shot to fall consistently, the senior guard with 17 points takes (or gets; depending on what the coaching strategy might have been) just two more shots (at 4:19 and at :21 to play) the rest of the game. What?
The “What?” being echoed throughout the Qwest Center crowd was actually chased by a few other choice words. Just as they were when CU player after CU player stepped to the free throw line seemingly intent on breaking some part of the hoop apparatus ala Shaq or Jerome Lane (Awesome Linked Videos Alert!). The Bluejays shot just 61% from the not-so-free throw line. During crunch time, in the last 8 minutes of the game, Creighton players missed 5 of 8 free throw attempts. The Bluejays only turned the ball over one time in the last 10 minutes of the game, but a stalling offense and unrealized opportunities were just as painful as blatant errors and erroneous passes. In all, it was enough to leave the 8th largest crowd in Creighton basketball history boiling over with frustration.
What is going to change? What are the solutions? The Jays lost another close game. Their defense looked abysmal at times, adequate at others, but nothing close to “great” for an extended period of time. Understandably, Creighton’s collective confidence looks a bit shaken, too. Much is made of swagger, and right now with all of these close losses mounting, I could see how CU’s swagger might be subsiding a bit.
I received an e-mail bright and early this morning from someone who has forgotten more about Creighton basketball than most people can remember. He’s about the most level-headed Jays fan I know. And he has given money and support to the program in good, bad, and ugly times, both for the Jays on the court and during his own life. Here was his message, entitled “An Open Letter to Dana Altman.” (You can’t make this stuff up, people.)
Just a couple of ideas to consider…
Play Wayne (Runnels) and Kenny (Lawson) together as a duel post. Watch some film from (Tony) Barone’s days about how he worked a high/low post with Bob (Harstad) and Chad (Gallagher). They trashed the league with their high percentage offense. If you think about it, there’s similarities in the combinations … one is tough with good rebounding effectiveness and the ability make quick shots and finish in traffic (i.e., Wayne:Bob). The other is taller and has softer hands and a nice shot (i.e., Kenny:Chad).
Bench (Antoine) Young until he can make free throws and dribble drive to the right of the basket; watching him pull up short of driving to the hoop on his right side because he feels more comfortable going to his natural left is frustrating. As are the missed free throws, especially for a point guard you want to be in the game late.
Play P’Allen (Stinnett), (Ethan) Wragge, and Cavel (Witter) on the outside to pop 3s and slash in with drives. When those 5 get tired or stop caring put someone else in.
Would a lineup of Witter, Stinnett, Wragge, Runnels, and Lawson look so bad? Would tightening the rotation even further work to CU’s advantage? Would the dynamic work with Witter running the point? He committed 2 turnovers in 5 minutes against New Mexico (ugh) but since then has made just one turnover (albeit with a game against Houston Baptist thrown in there, and albeit not playing all of his minutes at the point). But at least the guys on the floor in that proposed lineup wouldn’t be shy shooting the ball.
I’m not saying this Dear Dana letter is the answer. But someone better come up with some fixes soon, or the heat will be turned up on someone, fair or not. Altman and the Bluejays have built a machine, and people expect it to run rather smoothly after a decade of success, not fall into disrepair. The only thing keeping me warm on my walk back to the car last night, following a home MVC loss (of which CU has averaged only about 2 per season for the past few years) was the hot air I continued to spout relative to “what the Bluejays could do in the next few weeks to get back on track.” But even that benefit of the doubt is starting to fade. Hopefully Creighton’s season doesn’t do the same.