Creighton finds itself in a late-season search for its mojo.
The efficiency and grace in which Creighton's offense operated the first half of the season is missing. Granted, the familiarity Missouri Valley opponents have with the Bluejays has something to do with that.
But something else is lacking, and Creighton coach Greg McDermott knows his team has to find it as it heads down the stretch with a championship on the line.
“We have to find a way to get our swagger back,” McDermott said.
That was the message he delivered in a 30-minute postgame meeting with his team after Tuesday's 59-45 victory over Southern Illinois. The 59 points were the fewest Creighton has scored in a win this season, and the Bluejays were sluggish and mistake-prone at times against an opponent they had put up 81 points against three weeks ago.
That was before a three-game losing skid perhaps sapped some confidence, and before the grind of a long season had further contributed to the aches and pains that keeps several key cogs in the offense from performing at 100 percent.
McDermott acknowledges that his team is hurting, both physically and mentally.
“Part of (the problem) is the pressure of being on this team with the expectations that have been placed on these guys throughout the season,” McDermott said. “Part of it is the bumps and bruises that go along with a long season.
“But we have to find a way to find 'it.' I want so much for these guys to achieve all their goals, but they're going to have to step a little bit out of their comfort zone if we're going to get there.”
Several players said McDermott talked more about accountability and how they need to be more demanding of each other. The coach also stressed urgency, with just three games remaining in the regular season.
“There is not a lot of time to fix it, and I think each individual understands that,” guard Grant Gibbs said. “It's now or that moment is going to pass, and we'll regret it forever.
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“I think each individual, myself especially being the leader of this team, has to demand a little more.”
Creighton guard Jahenns Manigat said that task falls on all of the veterans.
“The guys that have been here the longest have to be a little more vocal,” he said. “There's a fine line with such a tight-knit group in speaking about an issue and not having anyone take it too hard.
“We have to find that line between when to be nice and when to step up and call someone out. It's not like we haven't done that in the past, but it's something we have to do more consistently.”
McDermott acknowledged that nice-guy nature of his team sometimes works against it.
“These guys want what every one of our fans want — they want to win every game, they want it to be easy,” McDermott said. “And in trying so hard to do right, we've become someone that we're not. That's what we have to change.
“But their intentions are accurate. Inherently, we don't have one selfish guy on this team. At times, some of our plays appear to be selfish. That sounds strange, but those are the things we need to fix. It's our responsibility as a coaching staff to get that fixed and to help our guys tread though this.”
The win over Southern Illinois left Creighton 5-5 in its past 10 games. That stretch comes after a 17-1 start that had the Bluejays nipping at the top 10 and fueling hopes for a high seed for the NCAA tournament.
Now, making the tournament has become part of the challenge. Creighton's name still shows up in the NCAA tournament predictions, but that could change if the Bluejays falter in their remaining three regular-season games — Saturday at St. Mary's, Wednesday at Bradley and March 2 at home against Wichita State — or make a quick exit from next month's Valley tournament.
The St. Mary's game is intriguing in that it allows Creighton to step out of conference play to participate in the BracketBusters series. The 22-5 Gaels will be difficult to beat on their home floor, but they also won't be as familiar with Creighton's attack as are the Bluejays' conference opponents.
One of the hallmarks to Creighton's offensive efficiency the past two seasons has been its ability to make the extra pass. That's allowed the Bluejays to turn good shots into better shots.
Creighton's Valley opponents have been taking that option away, leaving the offense struggling to find its rhythm.
“Things definitely aren't as easy as they were earlier in the year,” McDermott said. “We might look four times to get it into the post and it might be open once, where in December we'd look four times and it would be open three times.
“Maybe we're giving up on it too soon. It's a matter of being disciplined enough to stay with the play and understanding what we're looking for. These guys are trying, and in some ways, they're trying too hard and making some mistakes. They really want this, and I think we can get back to it.”
So does Gibbs.
“We've gotten away from making that extra pass,” he said. “Some of it is because of the way teams are playing us. Some of it is people trying to force their own action, when our strength is playing off each other and getting that extra pass.
“It's a mindset thing. It's about looking for your teammate and passing up good shots to get great shots. That's always been our thing, and we can get back to that easy. It's just a matter of changing your mindset.”
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