CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Northern Iowa’s largest crowd of the season will show up for Creighton’s appearance Wednesday night at the McLeod Center.
It’s been that way all season. The fans come out when the Bluejays are in town. In turn, that juices up the home team, perhaps no more so than a week ago when Indiana State turned in its best effort of the season in front of its largest crowd in pinning a 76-57 loss on Creighton.
The Creighton players say they enjoy being every opponent’s Super Bowl game, but it does raise the question of whether that experience is starting to take a toll, especially when concern is mounting about the state of the Bluejays after four losses in the past seven games.
The team’s core group has played a lot of minutes, raising concern about physical fatigue. At the same time, are the Bluejays wearing down mentally as they’ve had to get up game after game to take their opponents’ best shots?
“It does make everything tougher, the way you have to play, the way you have to prepare,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “I’m not sure it matters if it’s taken a toll or not. It’s not an excuse, and in the grand scheme of things, this is the way we want it.
“We want to be everyone’s biggest game. That comes with the territory with the success we’ve had. We just have to take into account that we need to be over-prepared for every game and play our best to get wins.”
Creighton forward Doug McDermott, who will be the focus of attention on and off the court in Wednesday’s game, agrees with Gibbs that the Bluejays relish the position their success has afforded them.
“We know it’s going to be a battle every time we step onto the floor,” he said. “What it comes down to is that we haven’t shot the ball well and we haven’t defended like we did early in the season to keep up with those teams.”
In spite of the rough patch the Bluejays have hit the past three weeks, Creighton still finds itself tied for the Missouri Valley lead with Wichita State at 9-4 with five games remaining. The Bluejays, ranked 23rd in the coaches’ poll, also stand 20-5 overall.
“There are a few teams around the country that are ecstatic to be 20-5, and then you have us,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “We feel horrible because of the way we’ve gotten to this place.”
Adding to the hype for Wednesday’s visit is that it marks the McDermotts’ return to Northern Iowa. Greg played for the Panthers and was their head coach for five seasons, leading them to three NCAA tournament appearances. Doug originally committed to Northern Iowa before following his dad to Omaha when he took the Creighton job.
There will be some folks who show up Wednesday night who still haven’t forgiven Doug for that. The usual chants that greet him in opposing arenas seem a little more vitriolic when he steps on to the floor at the McLeod Center.
“It’s just their way of doing things, and I understand it,” Doug McDermott said. “You would think that in year three that it might be a little more low key, but it’s fun to play there. They like playing against us, they like beating us.
“We’re going to try not to let that happen.”
Big things were expected this season from the Panthers, who returned all but one of the key contributors to last season’s 20-win team. That experience, Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said, was vital in helping the Panthers handle the ups and downs of this season.
“Our four seniors continued to make sure we prepared the right way, not only in practice but outside of it, too,” Jacobson said. “They made sure guys were getting extra shots up and watching extra film. They helped everyone stay together.”
Northern Iowa (14-11, 7-6) will take a three-game winning streak into the game. Creighton has lost its last two, but that hardly diminishes Jacobson’s wariness of the Bluejays.
“Indiana State played one of its better games of the year against them, and Illinois State is one of the hottest teams in the league right now,” Jacobson said. “Creighton caught two really good teams that were playing very well, and they still had a chance in the Illinois State game.
“They just missed some shots they normally make. They’re still playing good basketball.”
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