The early season college basketball schedule is ripe with blowouts, with the occasional competitive made-for-TV matchup sprinkled in for good measure. How many fan bases, Creighton’s included, have overhyped their beloved programs just because they hung a 20-point win on a directional school from someplace in the southwest or a seemingly fictional school from somewhere in the Louisiana Purchase?
I contend it is more beneficial for teams to play close games at the onset of the season than it is to destroy overmatched opponents. You learn more about a team’s psyche in the back-and-forth struggle of a close game than you do when the contest is effectively over sometime in the first half or early second half.
Take last season, for example. Dayton was a good team, but didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Bluejays played the Flyers close on the road, but buckled under pressure late in the game and lost by 10. It was the same story in Orlando, where Michigan and Creighton played an overtime game. The Bluejays led by 4 with just under 3 minutes to play in regulation, couldn’t hold the lead, and eventually lost in extra time. Add in similar losses at George Mason and New Mexico, and it was evident early in the season that last year’s Bluejays weren’t clutch collectively.
The beginning of this year’s CU schedule should not be confused with last season’s slate. Schools such as Alabama State and Northern Arizona don’t legitimately scare even the most knowledgeable of college basketball fans, let alone the casual Creighton fans leisurely strolling in amidst a November snow storm Friday night. CU’s non-conference schedule shakes down to 5 important games, beginning with next week’s neutral court contest against Iowa State. And in a season that effectively starts on December 18 and kicks into gear 11 days later as Valley play begins, the first two games of the Global Sports Hy-Vee Challenge felt as though the players and fans were feeling out exactly what was expected.
As Max so eloquently penned following Friday’s lackluster 14-point win over Alabama State, a 33-30 lead at half against a team that was effectively out-performing the Bluejays gave fans cause for concern. Sure, Kenny Lawson got into early foul trouble. And sure, Ethan Wragge didn’t play due to a foot injury. But it took a stat sheet-stuffer evening from Antoine Young (21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover) and solid rookie outings from Doug McDermott (16 points, 7 rebounds, 1 steal) and Jahenns Manigat (12 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal) to finally overwhelm the Hornets and move to 1-0.
And Alabama State wasn’t even the team during opening weekend many people thought would give Greg McDermott’s Bluejays a tough game. That would be the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, who were represented by what looked to be a lone fan in the Creighton student section. The guy was easy to pick out, in part because a) he looked like a real lumberjack, and b) he was standing in a virtual ocean of empty chairs, as there were probably 150 students at the game in total. Armed with a roster of decent athletes, preseason accolades in the Big Sky Conference, and a lone Lumberjack fan, NAU proceeded to give the Bluejays all they could handle.
Creighton committed three turnovers in the first two minutes of the game, but settled down and turned it only six more times in the remaining 38 minutes. Lawson got into early foul trouble for the second straight game, and played only 8 scoreless minutes of the first half. But Young kept the Bluejays in position to open up a double-digit lead midway through the half, and McDermott (8 points), Kaleb Korver (9 points), and Wayne Runnels (8 points) picked up the scoring slack for the preseason Valley Player of the Year.
A 9-point intermission margin expanded to 15 with 17:40 to play, and the Bluejay backers settled into their seats for what looked to be the inevitable early season blowout. But before they could get comfortable, the Lumberjacks flipped the script. Over the next 7 minutes, NAU went on a 27-7 run fueled by 7 consecutive 3-point makes. As the rest of Section 123 and I sat stunned as the Bluejays repeatedly failed to fight through screens and defend looks from long range, the atmosphere transformed from early season nonchalance to late season urgency. But as frustrated as we were watching the Jays’ lead fade, the silver lining was evident: we would see early in 2010-11 exactly how Coach Mac’s team would respond at the first sign of trouble.
The Bluejays adjusted somewhat to the Lumberjacks’ hot 3-point shooting, giving up just one made 3-pointer in the final 10 minutes of the game. The Jays got to the free throw line and took advantage of the opportunity, making 13 of 14 attempts in the final 6:40 of the game. And after playing even on the boards in the first stanza, the Bluejays beat NAU on the glass in the second half, including grabbing 7 offensive caroms and scoring 9 second-chance points.
But it was a Lumberjack offensive rebound and tip-in with 45 seconds remaining that tied the game once again, forcing Mac to call timeout and leaving the crowd fretting the final few possessions. The players are familiar faces individually, but fans don’t know too much about this Creighton team collectively. Would Young do what he did so many times last season, taking the ball to the rim late in the game and converting contorted shots? Would Lawson step up and finish in the paint? Or would Korver pull the trigger, displaying a renewed confidence that was missing against Illinois State last season?
The answer was a physical and, frankly, unforeseen two-handed flush by Lawson of an assist from Josh Jones. It was The Sheriff’s first dunk of the day, his second consecutive underwhelming game. He would follow that up with a rebound of a missed Northern Arizona 3-point attempt and two subsequent free throws, providing the Bluejays with their final 4 points and the 74-70 win. He finished with 10 points and 6 rebounds in 23 minutes.
In a season when comparisons to Dana Altman’s tenure will occur after almost every game, the final 10 minutes of Greg McDermott’s second win as Bluejays head coach were similar to so many late-game efforts from previous CU seasons. But the playing rotation was tighter. Only 8 Bluejays saw double-digit minutes during the game, and three (D-Mac, Korver, and Young) played 30 minutes or more. Runnels had a monster effort, his best game as a Bluejay. He scored a career-high 17 points and grabbed a career-best 10 rebounds, marking his first double-double at CU. And 6 of his rebounds came on the offensive glass. Is that what happens when he gets to play? His 25 minutes were also a career high; in fact, his best all-around game as a junior came when he played 24 minutes against Fairfield last season and scored 15 points and grabbed 9 boards.
Things have looked a little different, but the outcome is the same as it always seems to be. The Bluejays are 2-0 to start the season, with wins against teams most people will forget by the time Valley play begins in late December. But perhaps we know more about this team than we would have had the first two games been typical blowouts. Hopefully that’s a silver lining to a disturbingly average opening to the 2010-11 season.