The Illinois State Redbirds have for the past few years been the harbinger of some of Creighton’s worst basketball. So when the Valley released the league schedule earlier this year, the fact the Bluejays began the conference slate at Redbird Arena frightened me a bit.
No one would have blamed Greg McDermott’s team for failing to bounce back from an abbreviated Christmas break with a resounding win in Normal. The Bluejays played two true road games during the early season, and a neutral court game in Des Moines against Iowa State, a local favorite. And the Jays lost all three games. Add to the equation Creighton’s recent woes on the road against the Redbirds, and it would take a monster effort from one or two Bluejays to see CU start the Valley season undefeated on the way back to Omaha for the New Year.
Since Kenny Lawson, Casey Harriman, and Kaleb Korver were freshmen during the 2007-2008 season, only Booker Woodfox and P’Allen Stinnett (20 apiece during Senior Day in 2009) stepped up to take over a game against Illinois State and lead CU to the win. Cue Creighton’s best player this season, Antoine Young, for another exceptional performance.
In 38 minutes of play against the Redbirds, the junior point guard scored (21 points), distributed (3 assists), managed the game without many mistakes (1 turnover), hit the boards (5 rebounds), and played solid defense (2 steals, numerous pressures against perimeter and post players alike). When the Bluejays needed a good offensive look, Young stepped up to distribute or score. And when they needed a stop, the guard got one.
Young has asserted himself as the class of Valley point guards, if not all perimeter players in the league. As his minutes have increased (second in the MVC with 35.8 ppg), so too has his production, even as nagging soreness persists. He never quits, as evidenced by his diving attempt to corral a loose ball last night, an effort that left him strewn across a table on media row, one leg dangling above the court and his torso stretched downward toward the first set of seats at Redbird Arena.
But if teams try to key on Young, focus on taking away his playmaking ability, the introduction of Gregory Echenique to the frontcourt foils their plans to a degree. Echenique, who came off the bench in the first half but started the second in place of an ailing Kenny Lawson, flashed some of the long-rumored talent and sheer strength Jays fans have clamored for since the redshirt sophomore transferred to CU last winter. One, a well-timed offensive rebound and raucous dunk, left Echenique pounding his chest while running up the court. I can’t blame Jackie Carmichael or the other Redbird low post players from wanting to double-team him at every touch: I’m pretty sure no one on Tim Jankovich’s roster could take him on his own trip after trip after trip. But the big man from Venezuela, via New Jersey, is an exceptional passer, and out of double teams he rarely fails to find at least a semi-open teammate. For a fanbase used to watching Lawson wait to break a double-team until it was seemingly too late, Echenique’s strength and decisiveness is a welcomed breath of fresh air.
During an evening when Lawson played just 14 minutes and grabbed 2 boards, Echenique stuffed the stat sheet a bit but also logged a Creighton career-high 29 minutes. His 14 points and 7 rebounds allowed the Bluejays to survive a 2 for 7 shooting night from freshman Doug McDermott and counter a rare double-figure scoring night from Illinois State’s Blake Mishler. Echenique and Lawson did log a few minutes on the court at the same time, no doubt an effect of Creighton playing without Ethan Wragge, who was sitting on the sideline in a boot again. Add in two of the Bluejays’ wing players combining for 9 of the team’s 12 turnovers (Korver with 5, Darryl Ashford with 4), and it was imperative that someone besides Young rise to the occasion. Echenique made sure the point guard had help, and both worked to ensure CU started the Valley schedule on a winning note.
During a night when the Bluejays held Illinois State to under 60 points for the first time since January 2006, Greg McDermott’s modus operandi for winning during conference play was clearly evident. Tough, if not swarming, defense, coupled with a grinding half court offense not overly reliant on long range shooting accuracy, led by a sturdy and talented point guard and finished off by a bruiser in the paint and another post man who can catch fire with a deft shooting touch. The wing play will continue to be erratic all season, with the occasional big night coming from any of the combination of Ashford, Korver, Josh Jones, Jahenns Manigat, Wayne Runnels, and (hopefully) a healthy Wragge. But Young, Echenique, Lawson, and McDermott must be on more nights than not if the Jays want to continue to rack up road wins and put themselves in a position to challenge Wichita State and Missouri State for a Valley championship.
The Bears pulled out a roadie against Northern Iowa, while the Shockers stuck it to Evansville 91-57 in Wichita. Based solely on a combination of talent, coaching, and depth, those two teams are tops in the league right now. But it is a long season, and don’t be surprised if the league’s best player (Young) and arguably its strongest talent (Echenique) flip the script on the top preseason picks to prevail in the Valley.