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Ott’s Thoughts: Oregon 71, Creighton 69 (CBI Championship Game Three)

I went for a long walk this morning. Enjoying the early April air. Working off a bit of the beer and frustration that flowed from last night’s Creighton loss in the College Basketball Invitational championship series.

As I strolled through the neighborhood, I couldn’t help but notice the crooked cracks in the cement. I also couldn’t help but think out loud, “I wonder how many of these are bigger and more visible than the midcourt line on Kilkenny Floor?” That, if you didn’t watch the Bluejays’ loss Friday night, is the source of much consternation among Creighton fans right now.

As Max so eloquently put it, and as Steve Takaba pointed out a few days ago in the Omaha World-Herald, the art-project-turned-basketball-court at Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena leaves a bit to be desired relative to a clearly marked timeline. Honestly, the court’s been a source of ridicule among hoops junkies since it opened a few months ago. I’ve piled on in making fun of it, as well, especially because it seems a 180-degree difference from the type of atmosphere I would expect Dana Altman to be coaching in.

But I didn’t think my disapproval with the court would turn to disgust. At least, not until Oregon’s Malcolm Armstead had to verbally point out to the official that Antoine Young was behind a virtually invisible midcourt line as Creighton’s point guard attempted to start what CU hoped would be the final play of regulation with the game tied at 69 apiece (video here). In truly heartbreaking fashion, the Ducks got away with a travel by E.J. Singler on the ensuing possession, and the sophomore converted a bank shot with 2 seconds left to give Altman’s Ducks the win.

I could sit here and write something politically correct, such as “that play wasn’t the reason Creighton lost,” or “the positives outweigh the negatives CU experienced in this tournament,” but I’d be masking my true opinions. Arguably the best point guard in the Valley committed a game-changing turnover because his usual point of reference for midcourt was eliminated. Talk about a sick April Fool’s Day joke. Sure, the Jays missed 7 free throws. But Oregon missed 5. And sure, a few phantom fouls on Doug McDermott and Gregory Echenique limited Creighton’s ability to stop Joevan Catron (29 points, 5 rebounds). But when McDermott and Echenique were in the game, the Ducks couldn’t stop them either.

No, in a game that was essentially even through almost 40 minutes, “intelligent” design helped end Creighton’s season. Young didn’t see the “line,” nor did the official who called the infraction; that is, of course, until Armstead pointed it out. That begs another question: who should be more embarrassed, the referee who had to be told what to call, or the individual(s) who allow a flawed court to sit in the middle of an amazing arena?

As you can tell, my walk didn’t help too much. I can’t imagine how the players, chief among them Young, felt when the game was over. Watching the seniors, visibly distraught, accept the runner-up trophy left a pain in my gut. Their opportunity to learn from yet another difficult road loss doesn’t exist; many of those guys won’t play professionally.

Thus, the saving grace for this painful loss comes from what the team’s returning players may take from the experience. That includes McDermott, who when faced up against a few stronger players committed fouls that relegated him to a benchwarmer. That includes Jahenns Manigat, who went scoreless against the Ducks in the final game of the series and committed a few costly turnovers. That includes Echenique, who struggled again against double-teams but decimated the Ducks when they played him straight up. And it includes Young, the team’s floor general, who bounced back from a terrible first 45 minutes of basketball in Eugene to get his team back in position to win a title — only to see it slip away at “midcourt”.

For his part, Young played flawless basketball in the second half, until of course his final possession. After another rough start to a game in Eugene (5 first-half turnovers), Young settled in and dished 6 assists to just one miscue (the game-ending backcourt violation) while scoring 10 of his team-high 21 points in the second half. Sure, he missed free throws — didn’t everyone?

Of course, learning from losses such as this is easier said than done. The Jays can be proud of the way they played following their loss to Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals. But a team that allowed 65.2 points per game on defense during the season allowed 71 or more in five of their six CBI games. The defense needs to improve.

The Jays weren’t able to cause more havoc for their opponents than opponents did against CU. Creighton finished dead last in the Valley in steals per game (4.3) and turnover margin (-2.34). Ultimately, the Jays made too many mistakes with the basketball, and that issue culminated with the 20-turnover effort in game two of the CBI championship series and then the game-changing mistake inside the final 20 seconds of game three.

Still, if I’m buying stock in basketball programs, Creighton’s looks pretty good right now. It doesn’t change my feelings about the way last night’s game ended, or the always-frustrating What Could Have Been scenario. But the team’s best players all return, save for Kenny Lawson. If the incoming recruiting class (which includes one open scholarship currently) and this year’s redshirts (Will Artino, Grant Gibbs, and Ethan Wragge) can produce a backup for Echenique, a backup for Young, and some depth at the wing, Creighton will be poised to play important games in March.

Let’s just hope the court’s adequately marked, wherever those games may be.

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