Defense and rebounding. Rebounding and defense. It didn’t matter the order those words were uttered; if you were a Creighton basketball fan during the Dana Altman era, you could guarantee he would address both intricacies as if they were nagging colds plaguing his team after every single game. Displaying a perpetual glass-half-empty approach to dissecting a game during fans’ drive home, Altman would often harp on his team’s lack of defensive fortitude or rebounding effort while chatting with T. Scott Marr during the postgame radio interview. Never mind the Bluejays probably blew out their opponent; defense and rebounding, ultimately, win championships. And to that end, maybe he had a point: it has been a decade since Creighton has won an outright Missouri Valley Conference regular season title.
Is the 2010-2011 version of the Bluejays, the school’s first team since Altman left for Oregon, a championship-caliber team? Who knows. But do they seem a better rebounding and defensive bunch than the last few teams Altman put on the floor? Perhaps. I wrote about the lack of offensive firepower after the first few games of the season; the Bluejays have cracked 75 points, the magic number for pizza pandemonium at the Qwest Center, just three times this season. But they’ve also only allowed opponents to score 75 or more three times.
I tried to keep these thoughts fresh in my mind as the first few minutes of Creighton’s win against Samford ticked off the arena clock. It was all I could do to stop myself from loudly asking Greg McDermott to replace some of his players with members of the Kansas Jayhawks women’s team. Since, you know, they could pass the ball into the post and convert in the paint during their doubleheader-opening win against Jim Flanery’s team. The first 7 minutes of the men’s game saw the Bluejays trail 7-0 after the following series of plays:
- Missed jumper
- Missed 3-pointer
- Missed 3-pointer
- Missed jumper
- Missed jumper
- Missed jumper
The Bluejays, currently 341st in the country in turnovers per game, logged 6 turnovers in the first 7 minutes of the game. And even though they’ve been rather pedestrian from the field this season, going 0-6 to start the game doesn’t exactly set a team up for success. No matter how good a team’s defense might be, the aforementioned mistakes and missed shots will have the fanbase grumbling in their seats. So when Antoine Young finally got a pull-up jumper to fall and put the Bluejays on the board, the roar from the announced crowd of 16,550 was part genuine excitement, part animated frustration.
For the third time in this week of tune-up games before Valley play begins, the Jays’ lack of offensive firepower kept an otherwise overmatched opponent close on the scoreboard until late in the game. After beating Idaho State by just 6 points and finally pulling away from Western Illinois late to post a 13-point margin, Samford stuck around until midway through the second half Wednesday night, trailing by just 5 points with 11 minutes to play. The Jays, led by freshman Doug McDermott’s 9 second-half points, used a 17-4 run over the game’s final 11 minutes to post a 58-40 blowout.
There are few times when a team can manage to score fewer than 60 points but still register what ticker-watchers would deem a blowout. But the Bluejays held the Bulldogs to just 40 points, a Qwest Center record for scoring futility. It was the second consecutive game in which Creighton held its opponent to fewer than 50 points, a positive omen ahead of conference play beginning. If Coach Mac’s defense continues to develop, especially with the introduction of Gregory Echenique to patrol the paint, the Bluejays won’t have to rely on outstanding shooting to win games. Which is good, since to this point of the season the Jays haven’t demonstrated the ability to consistently fill up the scoring column.
No one is going to confuse Samford with Wichita State or Missouri State. The Bulldogs run the Princeton-style offense and are, for lack of a better term, collectively slender. So maybe the personnel played a major role in the domination on the glass Creighton displayed against Samford. But regardless how it happened, the result is evident: the Bluejays blasted the Bulldogs on the boards, to the tune of a 45-19 margin.
The +26 margin is also a Qwest Center record. And I find it amazing that Creighton pulled in more rebounds (45) than Samford scored points (40). In fact, the Bulldogs only secured one offensive rebound. One. And it happened with 44 seconds left in the game, after Creighton’s Club Trill checked in. I went back and tried to find a time in recent CU history when the Bluejays allowed 1 or fewer offensive rebounds to their opponent. I could only find the following instances that came close:
- 2, in a road loss at Drake last season
- 3, in a home win against Mississippi Valley State in 2007-2008
- 1, in a road loss to Nebraska in 2006-2007
- 4, twice, in 2005-2006: a road loss at Illinois State, and a home win against Evansville
- 4, in a home win against Bethune-Cookman in 2003-2004
Individually, McDermott grabbed 11 rebounds to go with his 14 points, posting his second career double-double. The freshman was deft again around the hoop, using great body control and a soft touch to score on a variety of tip-ins, leaners, and lay-ups. Plus, much to the pleasure of this coaching staff and his teammates who watch him hit from outside during practice, he made two of this three 3-pointers. If he evolves into a true inside-outside scorer, he is going to pose an enormous match-up problem for Valley defenders.
Darryl Ashford was once again active in leiu of scoring. He registered just 2 points but he tied his career high with 7 rebounds. He added 4 assists, 2 steals, and another block while committing just 1 turnover. Kenny Lawson and Echenique combined to play 36 minutes and post 13 points and 9 rebounds. They didn’t see the floor at the same time, one game after logging a few minutes together.
And once again, when the Bluejays needed big plays on both ends of the court, Young stepped up. He’s the best point guard in the Valley. He’s Creighton’s best player. And as Marr pointed out during the drive home last night, he’s logging Ryan Sears-type minutes. In fact, he’s the first Bluejays point guard to resemble Sears statistically since the Ankeny Bulldog left Creighton. Comparing the two as juniors, the similarities are clear.
- Young (13.4 ppg) is scoring at a similar level as Sears did (11.9 ppg)
- Young (35.4%) is making a similar percentage of his 3-pointers as Sears did (34.5%)
- Young (3.2 rpg) is grabbing a similar number of rebounds as Sears did (3.7 rpg)
- Young’s assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4) is almost identical to Sears’ (2.5)
Young isn’t even close, though, when looking at steals per game. Sears, the school’s all-time steals leader, swiped 2.4 per game as a junior, good enough for 37th best in the country that season. Young averages just 1 steal per game this season. But he had one last night that was reminiscent of Sears. With the Bluejays up just 7 with a little less than 10 minutes to play, Young snuck behind Samford’s Matthew Friday, yanked the ball from his hands at the top of the key, and converted an uncontested lay-up at the other end. That was the spark at the beginning of that game-ending 17-4 run. And it was most definitely a flashback to some of Sears’ most memorable steals.
My point? Through 12 games, a little more than one-third of their season, it is clear that this team will go as far as Antoine Young can take them. Sure, the team needs solid play from its preseason Valley Player of the Year and its hulking transfer from the Big East. And it would be great to be able to rely on the team’s star freshman to continue his all-around success. But the ball will be in Young’s hands for almost every single possession the Bluejays will run in the half court this season. His decision-making, his ability to score off the dribble and from the jumper, and his defensive leadership will be critical during Creighton’s conference season.
Much the same as Sears was called on to lead the Bluejays, alongside Ben Walker, during Sears’ junior year, following Rodney Buford’s exit as the school’s all-time leading scorer and the introduction of freshmen Kyle Korver and Terrell Taylor to the Bluejays lineup. Sears and Walker did most of the heavy lifting for the Jays that season, scoring and getting stops when Creighton needed either.
Creighton fans continue to talk about what Lawson is or is not doing. And Jays fans are understandably enamored by Echenique’s promise and talent. But Young is the key to a season that starts in earnest a week from now.