Their special season is starting to come unraveled before their eyes.
Their spot in the NCAA tournament, which seemed all but guaranteed a couple of weeks ago, is starting to look shaky.
They're about to trade their position among the nation's top teams for a stretch-run battle just to stay atop their conference.
After four losses in seven games, what can Creighton's basketball team do to get things back on track? The Bluejays know what they can't do.
“It's not the time to point fingers and blame anybody,” guard Grant Gibbs said.
Instead, Gibbs said, the 20-5 Bluejays need to show up for their next practice with a renewed determination to dig themselves out of the rut they've fallen into the past three weeks.
“We have to put our heads down and work and be hungry,” Gibbs said. “We don't have to worry about rankings or anything like that anymore, but there is a lot to play for. We have to value that, get back to work and right this ship.”
Creighton heads to Northern Iowa on Wednesday saddled with a two-game skid. What amplifies concerns about the two defeats is the manner in which they unfolded.
The Bluejays were outplayed and outhustled at Indiana State in a 76-57 setback. They showed more fight in Saturday's 75-72 home loss to Illinois State, but some mental breakdowns cost them against a team that might be as talented as there is in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The common thread in both losses is Creighton's bread-and-butter — its ability to put the ball in the basket — turned to mush. The Bluejays shot their second-lowest percentages, both from the field and 3-point range, against the Sycamores.
They bottomed out against the Redbirds, making 25 of 66 shots (37.9 percent) from the field and 4 of 23 attempts (17.4 percent) from beyond the arc. Both marks were season lows for a team that started the week leading the nation in field-goal percentage (.520) and 3-point percentage (.449).
Before last week, Creighton coach Greg McDermott said, “shooting would have been the least of my worries.”
Getting that aspect of the Bluejays' game fixed has to rate as Job 1 with McDermott and his staff. More times than not, when Creighton isn't shooting at a high percentage and scoring points in bunches, the rest of its game suffers.
On the flip side, when the Bluejays' offense is clicking, their average defense seems to become a little more adequate if only because opponents start pressing to try to keep up.
Asked what he believes must transpire to get back on track, McDermott replied, “We need to play a complete game.”
Creighton dominated the rebounding against Illinois State, finishing with a 48-29 advantage. It's hard to rate a defensive effort top-flight when an opposing player goes off for 27 points as Tyler Brown did, but the Bluejays' overall performance on that end of the court might have been good enough if their offense wasn't missing in action.
“In a game like this, when you're not shooting it well, you have to be perfect in a lot of other areas,” McDermott said. “We were obviously great on the backboards, but we just had a few breakdowns and had some basketball plays that we didn't make.
“That needs to happen on a night when you don't shoot the basketball well.”
Creighton's starters combined to shoot 36.1 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from beyond the arc in the two losses. Its top two substitutes, Ethan Wragge and Avery Dingman, were a combined 2 of 10 from the field and 2 of 8 from 3-point range.
The Bluejays did get some step-up offensive efforts from a couple of reserves who have seen limited playing time this season. Against Indiana State, center Will Artino matched his career high with 13 points, making 5 of 5 shots from the field.
Nevin Johnson also equaled his career high with nine points against Illinois State. He scored six straight points in the second half, with his last basket giving Creighton its final lead at 50-48 with 15:06 to play.
“Nevin really gave us a boost,” McDermott said. “I was pleased with what he was able to do. We got into some foul trouble, and Nevin was ready. We need our bench to continue to do those things for us.”
Creighton started last week with a one-game lead over Wichita State in the Valley. The Shockers lost Tuesday at last-place Southern Illinois. That left the Bluejays with a scenario heading into the Indiana State game in which a win would have given them a two-game lead on Wichita State and a three-game cushion on the Sycamores.
Instead, the loss to Indiana State coupled with Saturday's defeat dropped Creighton into a three-way tie for first place at 9-4 with Wichita State and Indiana State. The Bluejays play three of their final five Valley games on the road, where they have lost three of their last four.
Indiana State and Wichita State also have three road games remaining, though the Shockers' three appear the most daunting — at Indiana State, at resurgent Illinois State and at Creighton.
As they have throughout the season, the Bluejays say panic will do them no good in the face of tough times. Losing confidence in what produced a 17-1 start is counterproductive at this point, All-American Doug McDermott said.
“We have to keep shooting the shots we've been making all year,” said McDermott, 10 of 26 from the field in the two losses. “We have to keep preparing the same way we have all year.
“We have to keep working so that we can bounce back and be ready for this real challenging week.”
Gibbs said the Bluejays need to clean up the mental mistakes that negated some of the intensity they showed against Illinois State.
“The intensity of the game and the environment caused us to make some bonehead plays that eventually cost us the game,” he said. “We have to be able to play with that intensity and still be focused in on the little things.”
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