Greg McDermott provided an aid Monday for the visual learners on Creighton’s basketball team to underscore the sense of urgency the Bluejays need to embrace.
He brought two small mason jars with him to practice. In one were six blue marbles. In the other were 11 orange marbles.
“The blue ones are the number of regular-season games we have left,” McDermott said. “The orange ones are the number of practices we have remaining before Wichita State. There’s not a lot of season left.”
Especially for a team that finds itself scuffling, saddled with a two-game losing streak and facing a pair of Missouri Valley road games this week. The first comes Wednesday at Northern Iowa, which has won three straight and is playing like the team many observers figured would be among the league’s front-runners this season.
Creighton also must travel to Evansville on Saturday. The Purple Aces have won 14 games this season, including 12 at home.
The Bluejays (20-5) enter the final three weeks of the regular season tied for first place at 9-4 with Indiana State and Wichita State. Two games behind the leaders are Northern Iowa and Evansville at 7-6.
What concerns McDermott as he prepares for Wednesday’s game is that four of the Panthers’ losses have come by a total of 11 points.
“They are four possessions away from being 11-2 and leading this league by a couple of games,” McDermott said. “Like Illinois State, Northern Iowa is now playing the way everyone thought they’d be playing all year.
“They have a lot of confidence, a lot of experience. They spread you out and shoot the 3-point shot very well.”
Creighton’s latest setback came Saturday when Illinois State came to Omaha and left with a 75-72 victory. The win was the Redbirds’ sixth in their past seven games after a 0-6 start to conference play for a team that was picked second in the Valley’s preseason poll.
Northern Iowa was picked third but had difficulty picking up any traction during a difficult nonconference schedule that included games against nationally-ranked Louisville and UNLV.
The Panthers opened league play with a 25-point loss to Wichita State, and Creighton posted an 11-point decision over Northern Iowa in Omaha on Jan. 15. The Panthers lost four- and one-point games to Indiana State, and dropped a pair of three-point games to Evansville, the second coming in overtime.
Since that 54-51 loss, Northern Iowa has beaten Wichita State, Missouri State and Bradley to improve to 14-11 overall.
“We’ve actually played well for our last eight basketball games,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “We’ve defended and rebounded better. We still have room for improvement in those areas, but we have been more consistent.
“We’ve also played better at the offensive end, showing a consistency that we haven’t always shown this season. For the better part of a month, we’ve been a fairly consistent basketball team.”
Wednesday’s game against the Panthers is the Bluejays’ third straight against an opponent that might be playing its best basketball of the season. Indiana State’s performance in last week’s 76-57 win over Creighton was its best of the season, coach Greg Lansing said.
Illinois State coach Dan Muller said after Saturday’s win over the Bluejays that his team probably wouldn’t have been capable of pulling off such a victory two weeks ago.
“Our offensive continuity wasn’t where it is now,” he said. “We won some tough games, but it was because we were playing well on the defensive end. But two weeks ago, I don’t think we could have scored enough to beat a team like Creighton.”
Now, the Bluejays are catching another team playing at a high level at a time when their offense is struggling to make shots.
“It adds to the challenge, but we want to get back on track and be the team we are,” Creighton forward Doug McDermott said. “We want to be the team we were in nonconference and at the beginning of the conference season.
“We know how good we can be, but we just have to put it together. When we’re not making shots, we have to be able to defend. We have to buckle down and get some stops.”
Creighton’s high-powered offense stalled in the losses to Indiana State and Illinois State. The Bluejays scored a season-low 57 points against the Sycamores on 41.7 percent field-goal shooting. Creighton then shot a season-low 37.9 percent, including 17.4 percent from beyond the arc, in the loss to Illinois State.
The latter was especially troubling for a team as reliant on the 3-point shot as Creighton. Almost 40 percent of the Bluejays’ field-goal attempts have come from beyond the arc, and they’ve made just 21 of 72 (29.2 percent) in the past three games.
Such numbers are alarming, but Greg McDermott knows few outsiders were raising red flags when those same shots were going in during Creighton’s 17-1 start.
“We’re leading the nation in field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage for a reason,” McDermott said. “It’s not because of something we’ve done over two games, but it’s because of what we’ve done over the course of time.
“Every team is going to have stretches where it’s not as good as it needs to be. That’s why against Illinois State it was encouraging to see our free-throw count and our rebounding count. We did other things that gave us a chance.”
Creighton outrebounded the Redbirds 48-29. The Bluejays got to the free-throw line 21 times, making 18. They had 11 turnovers, which McDermott considers a manageable amount.
“If you would have told me those numbers prior to the game, I would have said we would be fine,” the coach said. “It was just one of those games where the stat sheet doesn’t make sense.”
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