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Ott’s Thoughts: Creighton 82, UCF 64

As a life-long fan of the NCAA Tournament, I guess I’m ashamed to say it: I have CBI Fever. Sure, I’ve watched the Big Dance unfold during the past week, enjoyed the buzzer beaters and subsequent Gus Johnson freak-outs. But I’m legitimately engrossed in the College Basketball Invitational, in part because it seems like the beginning of the 2011-2012 Creighton Bluejays basketball season.

The team’s loss to Missouri State in the semifinals of Arch Madness a few weeks ago was a tough result to deal with. The Bluejays couldn’t finish double-digit leads against the Bears in any of the teams’ three meetings, and a potential trip to the league championship game disappeared as Kyle Weems and the rest of the seasoned MSU squad took control late in the game.

Greg McDermott’s Bluejays managed just 50 points in that semifinal loss, shooting just 39% from the field. They attempted just 6 free throws and settled for 22 3-point attempts. In the second half, almost every shot CU attempted occurred with one or two Bears closely guarding the play. The Jays weren’t fooling Cuonzo Martin or any of his players.

With more than a week between that loss and the team’s next game, a first round matchup with San Jose State in the CBI, it seems CU found some sort of lost offensive power missing for most of the season. Sure, the defense in these games probably has James Naismith rolling around in his grave. But the Bluejays are scorching the nets at a pace that may necessitate replacing them with peach baskets or something.

The third victim of this eruption of offensive precision was the University of Central Florida. The Knights spent Wednesday flying to Omaha, and a few minutes into the game it seemed their basketball legs were still on the runway, or at baggage claim. Forty minutes later, the Jays posted arguably their most resounding win of the season. With 7 minutes left in the game, Creighton led UCF 73-43, having decimated the Knights defense. And, unlike the two previous games, the Jays actually held an opponent to their season average for points allowed (64 ppg). Creighton’s own Club Tril checked into the game with 3:28 to play and subsequently allowed a 9-0 UCF run to finish the game, but by then nothing could ruin what is now beginning to spoil CU fans: blowout wins led by a locked-in offense.

Only once previously this season did the Bluejays record three consecutive games of 50% field goal shooting or better (59% in a home win against Bradley, and then 50% in road losses at Missouri State and Northern Iowa). But the Jays have found their stroke during the CBI, having shot 50% or better in each contest. Wednesday’s effort was exceptional; Creighton shot almost 58% from the field, including 47% from 3-point range. Their confidence on offense is evident, and perfectly illustrated by Josh Jones.

Jones missed his first two shots against UCF, but late in the first half collected a steal and then minutes later hit a jumper to give the Jays a 44-23 lead heading into halftime. After entering the game in the second half for the first time, he scored 8 straight CU points. It was eerily similar to the situation that played out Monday night, when Jones made an early layup but missed a couple of jumpers in the first half. Immediately before the first 20 minutes ended against Davidson, Jones collected a steal and finished a layup. He translated that strong play into the second half, when he made his first three shots of the second stanza and scored 17 of his career-best 21 points.

Jones was one of five Bluejays in double figures against UCF, adding 11 points off the bench. Gregory Echenique led Creighton with 19 points, his highest total as a Bluejay and just 2 points shy of his collegiate career best (21 versus Princeton last season). He’s scored 47 points in the team’s three CBI games, during just 60 minutes of court time. Antoine Young and Doug McDermott each scored 16 points. And it was Young, not McDermott, recording a double-double against the Knights. His 10 assists pushed his CBI totals to 27 assists and zero turnovers.

Gregory Echenique (00) played solid defense to go with a CU career-high 19 points (WBR/Adam Streur)

Gregory Echenique (00) played solid defense to go with a CU career-high 19 points (WBR/Adam Streur)

Young is now averaging nearly 5 assists per game on the season, which leads the Missouri Valley Conference and is almost a full assist more than Indiana State’s Jake Odum and Missouri State’s Nafis Ricks. His 2.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio also leads the Valley. Along with these two statistical measures, he’s currently in the top 10 league-wide in scoring (seventh), steals (tenth), and minutes played (second).

And largely due to Young’s yeoman efforts in the past three CBI games, he’ll lead his team against the coach that offered him a scholarship while Young was still a high school underclassman.

Yes, if you haven’t read/heard by now, Dana Altman will bring his Oregon Ducks to Omaha Monday for the first game of a best-of-three series for the CBI Championship. Qwest Center Omaha (soon to be called CenturyLink Center) will surely be rocking when Altman, a Creighton legend, returns to coach against the team he left less than a year ago. By beating Boise State late Wednesday night, Altman’s Ducks rewarded CBI organizers with an intriguing matchup in late March and gave Creighton’s upperclassmen a chance to compete against a coaching staff (including Kevin McKenna and Brian Fish) that gave them their opportunity to come to Creighton.

If you would have told me a month ago that Creighton and Oregon would play each other in hoops in the foreseeable future, let alone this season, I would have said it was more likely that Creighton would score 85, 102, and 82 points in consecutive games. But since that happened, I guess anything is possible — including welcoming the (former) Dean of the Valley back to arena he helped build.

CBI Fever. Catch it.

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