It is the morning after another Senior Day win for Dana Altman and the Creighton Bluejays, and my heart and head are waging a back-and-forth battle. The Jays have picked the most enticing time of the year to string together their first three-game winning streak of the season. So the question becomes which was an aberration: Creighton’s last three games, or half of the previous 27 that preceded the win streak?
That was a question I told myself I’d try to answer on Sunday; Saturday evening called for celebrating the win and the seniors that played their final games in front of the Qwest Center Omaha crowd. One of those three gentlemen, Justin Carter, put together one of his best all-around efforts of the season. His 17 points and 6 rebounds were both second highest for the Bluejays, and his 17 points marked the fourth time in five games he has scored in double figures.
Carter’s stats were dwarfed slightly only by Kenny Lawson’s. The junior post player, who most likely will earn some sort of All-MVC consideration this week, put up 20 points and grabbed 8 rebounds, 2 boards short of compiling his third straight double-double. Lawson has scored in double figures in each of his last seven games, during which he has a 16.1 ppg scoring average. Additionally, he has averaged exactly 7 rebounds during each of those seven games. Against Bradley, he missed just 1 field goal and 1 free throw, and hit the only 3-pointer he took (he’s 3-5 from long range for the season, with all the attempts coming during the past two weeks).
But for the second straight game, it was two members of the underclassmen group that had great efforts (the type of efforts from freshmen and sophomores that are critical to offering assistance to upperclassmen star players during a potential three-day run through the conference tournament).
He only scored 3 points in his first ever start at Creighton (last weekend against Loyola), but frosh Ethan Wragge scored 9 points (including a huge 3-pointer late in the game) in 27 minutes against Southern Illinois and then went off for 12 points in 12 minutes against the Braves. Other than Lawson, Wragge is Creighton’s best shooter, and easily the Jays’ most consistent threat from 3-point range. He is also a scrappy defender, one who is trying to learn where he needs to be but is never short on tenacity and effort. Much to his detriment, the officials often see this fire as fouling, and he has consistently found himself in foul trouble all season. Still, Wragge has to see increased minutes for the Bluejays to be effective offensively, because he can stretch defenses with his shooting range.
A game after scoring a career-high 22 points, and seemingly beating the Salukis single-handedly down the stretch, sophomore Antoine Young set career-best marks against Bradley in two other meaningful categories. For the first time in his career, he dished 8 assists, due to equal parts his vision and aggressiveness getting the ball to teammates and his fellow Bluejays knocking down some shots. Young also grabbed 5 rebounds, his best single-game effort on the boards. Plus, Young made all 4 free throws he attempted against the Braves. In his past three games, he has gone from missing 2 at the charity stripe (3-5 vs. Loyola) to missing 1 (8-9 against SIU) to being perfect from the line against Bradley. Young committed 2 turnovers against the Braves but got those back via 2 steals, his second straight game swiping 2 takeaways.
None of the aforementioned players are perfect, mind you. Lawson, while steady, has been outperformed in some games by statistically lesser foes. Carter is playing undersized at his position. Wragge fouls … a lot. And Young tends to dribble to the left, his natural side, and looks at least a little uncomfortable going right. He might not be, and it could just be a habit thing, but one would think if Young sprinkled in a bit more right-handed drives to the hoop, and he continued to hit his free throws, he’d be among the more unstoppable players in the Valley. Heck, the Salukis can’t even stop him when they know he is going left!
But the point, I suppose, is that for the first time all season, it seems their rotation, their shooting ability, their efforts on the glass, and the more fortuitous bounces of the basketball are all coming together in the Bluejays’ favor. Many people much more knowledgeable about basketball than I would perhaps laugh off any notion that the Bluejays could string together three wins in St. Louis, without the supportive home crowd or the comfortable environs. And I’d be the first to agree with any sort of prevailing pessimism, considering the Bluejays haven’t advanced past the semifinals since the 2007 Arch Madness championship run. But, when you look around the Valley, ask yourself: why not?
If your first answer is “Creighton’s defense,” you have perhaps the best reasoning. The Bluejays currently allow 68 points per game to their opponents. This is the highest points allowed average since the 2001-2002 gave up 68.7 ppg. The 1998-1999 team allowed 68.6 ppg. Both of these teams made the NCAA Tournament thanks to three-game runs at Arch Madness. But they also scored 75.7 and 76 points per game on offense, respectively, easily outscoring their opponents for the season overall. This year’s team doesn’t score as well as those teams did (just 69.6 ppg), leaving the scoring margin a miniscule +1.6 for the season. That’s the definition of having no wiggle room.
But the Bluejays have averaged 81 points during the three-game win streak. Sure, the wins came against Loyola-Chicago (one of the Horizon League’s worst teams), Southern Illinois (uncharacteristically finishing in the last four spots in the Valley), and Bradley (a team that, for whatever reason, the Bluejays were able to sweep in the regular season). But does it matter?
- After shooting just 37% against Illinois State and 37.5% against Northern Iowa (both losses), the Jays have caught fire from the field. Creighton hit shots at a 48% clip against Loyola, a 49% rate against SIU, and a 51% frequency against the Braves.
- While posting a 70% success rate at the free throw line for the season, the Bluejays are shooting 80.9% during their past five games.
- After making just about one-quarter of their 3-point shots in the back-to-back losses to the Redbirds and Panthers, the Jays shot better than their season average (32.8%) from long range against the Ramblers (36.8%), the Salukis (35.3%), and the Braves (42.9%).
There’s always one team that makes the NCAA Tournament by putting together an inexplicable run through its conference tournament. Sometimes, it is a team that had high hopes hoist on it early in the season, struggled for whatever reasons, and puts the pieces of the puzzle together at the very end of its allotted time. Sometimes, the team is barely over .500. Who is to say the Bluejays aren’t this year’s team to fit that bill?
Again, maybe all of this analysis avoids considering the larger sample size of results. Perhaps I’m being selective when I consider the stats, or being too positive while waxing philosophical about the Bluejays’ chances in a three-round tournament on a neutral court. That’s what makes Arch Madness great, I suppose. For a few days following the last regular season Valley games, before 10 different fan bases descend on the Gateway City and stake claim to various hotels, restaurants, and watering holes, the MVC teams are for the most part on equal footing. And considering only 5 of the league’s 10 teams enter the tournament on a winning note of any kind, to be one of the teams surging instead of stumbling toward Arch Madness is just enough to give fans’ hearts the slight edge over brains in the battle of realistic expectations.
That being said, it really doesn’t take much to upend my brain power, especially when it is my heart doing the work. I love Creighton University, the school’s community, and its sports teams, and there is no weekend when all three are better on display than in St. Louis for Arch Madness.