MORAGA, Calif. — The dichotomy that is Creighton's basketball season keeps coming back to one thing.
When the Bluejays shoot the ball well, they have been close to unbeatable. When shots don't fall, they sometimes have little to fall back on and become a team that is more average than exceptional.
Despite that, Creighton heads into the final week of the regular season with all of its major goals within reach. Win Wednesday at Bradley and Saturday at home against Wichita State, and it would be assured of no less than a share of the Missouri Valley Conference championship.
“We need to be at our best the next two games,” guard Jahenns Manigat said. “We still have a shot at being right where we wanted to be at the end of the season. It's not time to hang our heads or feel sorry for ourselves. We have to pick each other back up and be ready to practice on Monday.”
Pessimistic fans might suggest that sounds like mission impossible for a team that has lost six of 11 games, and looked bad doing that at times. A common thread is that the Bluejays have found themselves trying to play catch-up after falling behind early.
The aggressive nature they displayed at the beginning of games that contributed to a 17-1 start hasn't always been there recently. Saturday's BracketBusters loss at St. Mary's was a prime example. Creighton fell behind early and found itself in dire straits when the Gaels used an 8-0 run at the end of the first half to take a 14-point lead.
A week earlier, the Bluejays trailed Evansville by 16 points midway through the first 20 minutes before rallying to win. Indiana State used a 29-9 run at the end of the first half and start of the second to take control of a Feb. 6 game in Terre Haute.
Creighton trailed at the half in seven of its past 11 games. Contrast that to the first 18 games, when it held halftime leads 14 times and was tied at the break in one other game. The Bluejays never trailed at all in posting four wins in their first 18 games. They've gone wire-to-wire with the lead once in their past 11 games.
“We can't allow teams to throw that first punch like we have been lately,” forward Doug McDermott said. “We have to be the team that comes out and does it to them like we have in the past.”
Even when opponents succeeded in landing early blows at the start of the season, the Bluejays could rely on their shooting to get back into games. They shot a staggering 52.4 percent from the field, 45.4 percent from 3-point range and 75.6 percent from the foul line in their 17-1 start.
That accuracy has taken a dip the past 11 games, and nowhere more than from the 3-point line. Creighton has shot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc in that stretch, while its overall field-goal percentage in the span is .472. The Bluejays are still shooting well from the line, converting 72.8 percent.
Of the team's primary 3-point shooters, one — guard Grant Gibbs — has shown better from beyond the arc in the past 11 games than he did in the first 18.
“We have not shot the 3 like we did earlier in the year,” coach Greg McDermott said. “That has hurt us. We had some really good looks on some rhythm 3s in the first 20 minutes of the game (against St. Mary's). If three or four of those go in, it's not a 14-point game at half.”
They didn't, as Creighton made 3 of 13 shots (23.1 percent) from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes against the Gaels. The Bluejays shot 29.6 percent overall for the half and finished the game at 41.2 percent.
That was Creighton's third-worst shooting percentage of the season but fits into its recent trend of poor shooting. Six of the team's seven lowest shooting percentages have come in the past 11 games.
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“Some of that is shots not going in, some of it is execution,” Gibbs said. “I think when we were aggressive and attacking and sharing the basketball, that's when we were at our best.”
Consistently falling behind at the start of games has robbed the Bluejays of some of that aggressiveness. It's led to tentative play and fostered a “let's-not-make-a-mistake” approach that runs counter to the free-flowing attack that made them so efficient at the start of this season and for most of last.
A visitor on Saturday suggested to Greg McDermott that the offense almost appears disjointed.
“I don't agree with your assessment,” he said. “We have had possessions that are disjointed, possessions we don't finish but we've had some of those all year. They were probably masked by the fact that we were shooting the ball so well.”
Creighton can hardly afford many more in the coming weeks. The Bluejays head into their final two regular-season games with a chance for a title but they also are one game ahead of third-place Northern Iowa and two ahead of fourth-place Indiana State.
Creighton players say they have no doubts about their ability to rescue a season that is coming close to ending up on the rocks.
“We haven't played our best basketball during the second half of the season, but this is still the same team that started 17-1,” Gibbs said. “It's easy to smack high-fives and smile when everything is going right but when they're not, the perception is that we're not playing hard or with passion. That's just not true. Guys on this team have put more into this than anything. It has to stay that way, and we just have to stick with each other.”
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