Creighton was the mid-major team of great expectations when the season began. They had one of the best players in the country in forward Doug McDermott and were coming off a year that saw them get to the second round of the NCAA Tournament**. The Bluejays still might get there—they are 17-3 overall—but a couple recent losses have raised some red flags, while conference rival Wichita State is on the move in what promises to be a good season-long joust in Missouri Valley basketball.
McDermott has been everything that was advertised, averaging 24 points/7 rebounds a game. The junior forward is supported in the backcourt by senior Grant Gibbs, a 10 ppg scorer, who also averages six assists per game. Senior forward Gregory Echenique averages 10/7 per night. Combined, this trio should give Creighton enough inside-out balance to compete at a high level. Sophomore guard Austin Chatman has done an effective job knowing his role and distributing the ball well.
But on the floor, Creighton’s best wins don’t electrify you—they beat Wisconsin back in November when the Badgers were floundering around. Wins over Cal & Arizona State are nice, but hardly dazzle. The same goes for beating a disappointing St. Joe’s team. And the Bluejays lost to a team of similar caliber, Boise State, because Creighton didn’t play defense and didn’t rebound.
Still, at this time last week, only the Boise State loss marred the Creighton resume. Even a close loss at Wichita State last Saturday wasn’t alarming. But Creighton followed that up by losing at Drake. The pattern in all these games are that McDermott and Gibbs are the only ones who provide any scoring, the rebounding is usually subpar and the defense mediocre.
Now I’m not suggesting that Creighton needs to imitate the 1984 Georgetown Hoyas on the defensive end, but the Bluejays do need to lock down better than what they’ve been doing. They certainly need to hit the boards better. This, and the lack of a third asset in these games point to Echenique as the player who needs to step up. Get him on the glass and chip in 12-15 points in these games and they turn into wins. What’s more, that’s a reasonable expectation for a program that has to rely on dominance from its best players, and not just McDermott.
Creighton’s got a couple games to work things out. They play a bad Southern Illinois team on Sunday night, then have another should-be win against Missouri State. It’s the two games after, against competitive teams in Bradley and Indiana State that will tell us if the Bluejays are really getting back on track. Right now, Creighton is still ranked #17, and still projected as a #4 seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, but the rankings and projections were done before the Drake loss this week. The Bluejays need to plant their feet and reverse gear quickly, or a promising season can slip away.
WICHITA MOVES UP
Wichita State is moving ahead where Creighton falters. The Shockers are 18-2, and the head-to-head win over the Bluejays has given them a one-game lead in the Missouri Valley basketball race. Wichita is doing it with two quality forwards in Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early, who combine for 29 points/13 rebounds per night. The question is going to be the backcourt—there’s experience with Demetric Williams and Malcolm Armstead and good ball distribution, so the guards do the job in creating a basic flow of play. But Wichita has no one who can hit the three-point shot. We’ll see if that trips them up in a game against the Missouri Valley middle and costs them the conference lead.
In the meantime though, this is a traditionally competitive program that’s beaten good teams in Virginia Commonwealth and Southern Miss, both likely to be NCAA-bound. The Shockers are a big part of what’s going to be an exciting five weeks in the Missouri Valley, as they and Creighton careen to another head-to-head matchup in the regular season finale on March 2.