Monday, January 04, 2010

JTG 01/04/10 - Purple Ace turning point?

Currently: 6-8 overall, 1-2 in Missouri Valley competiton.

Is this it? Is this the win that gets Creighton out of this disastrous rut? Is a defeat of the Purple Aces the turning point?

Let’s review the action since last we met, first. After suffering one of the most disastrous non-conference schedules in Dana Altman’s tenure, Creighton had the daunting task of opening conference play against Northern Iowa, the consensus selection to win the league.

However, CU got the Panthers at home, and an upset over the favorites had the potential to jumpstart Creighton’s second season. Things didn’t start out so well, with the Bluejays falling behind 13-2. However, Creighton fought its’ way back and took the lead with under 12 minutes to play.

The Bluejays then found themselves in a familiar position. They had the lead in the second half, with a chance to close out a quality opponent and get a desperately needed victory. In the non-conference season, this is where Creighton had been marred with poor defensive play, terrible free throw shooting, and an inability to get a quality shot in the final minute of the game. What happened against UNI?

Creighton had poor defensive play, terrible free throw shooting, and was unable to get a quality shot in the final minute of the game.

It is a little eerie how all of Creighton’s losses tend to follow the same script. I’ve wondered (and rest assured, have not been alone in wondering) whether the Bluejays would internalize those losses and have them become self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s difficult to say how much of Creighton’s fade against UNI was the Panthers’ toughness and athletic ability and how much was Creighton’s mental issues.

Unfortunately, we got a chance to have a similar experiment in the following game, at Indiana State. Any time Creighton plays against the Sycamores, coached by former Creighton assistant coach Kevin McKenna, the Bluejays struggle. In this case, the struggle went all the way to dropping their second Valley conference game.

At least in this game, the Bluejays didn’t give a lead up in the second half. They did get the score tied, but Indiana State never trailed Creighton. Free throw problems again plagued Creighton, shooting only 13-20 against Indiana State. What might be more disturbing, however, is Creighton’s 3-19 performance in three-point shots. Yes, this year’s Bluejay squad is far less reliant on outside shooting than teams in years past. However, 3-19 is still 3-19, and combining that with poor free throw shooting makes it very difficult to win conference games.

The Bluejays, however, were able to right the ship in Evansville, getting their first conference win and their first road win of the season against the Purple Aces. At this point, the fact that Evansville was 6-6 going into the game without a conference win is almost irrelevant. Creighton needed the feeling of a road win, any road win, and they got a tough one against Evansville.

Yes, a tough one. Creighton gave away a double-digit second half lead to fall behind 58-56 with under eight minutes left. At that point, you have to think that every Creighton player had flashbacks of Michigan. And George Mason. And New Mexico. And Northern Iowa. And … well, you get the picture.

But Creighton finally flipped the script in their favor. The Bluejays got the lead back and played stifling defense to end the game, holding Evansville to just one basket in the last 3:15 of the game. Finally – finally – Creighton was able to get some positive reinforcement from the hard work they put into a game.

So, is that enough? Is a win over 6-6 Evansville a turning point?

If nothing else, it stops the rot and gives the Bluejays at least a little confidence that they can close out a team. Although it says a lot about how the season has unraveled that a win over Evansville seems like water in the desert, the fact is that the Bluejays have been pretty parched lately.

There have been plenty of individual standouts, most notably Kenny Lawson, who have begun to offer consistent contributions. That’s the biggest positive, apart from the win, to take out of the week’s results. As we’ve discussed since Orlando, Creighton’s NCAA aspirations hinge on their performance in the Missouri Valley conference tournament in March. So, once again, even the conference schedule is a bit of a pre-season in terms of tournament hopes.

If that’s the case, the win over Evansville is an important step forward. It’s a small step, to be sure, but a necessary one if Creighton hopes to keep their NCAA dreams alive. The Bluejays face a home contest against Drake and a road game against Wichita State in the upcoming week. A sweep of those games and the Bluejays have some nice momentum going forward.

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