Encouraging signs have been in short supply in recent weeks for Creighton’s basketball team.
Monday’s practice provided one.
After Saturday’s loss at St. Mary’s, several Bluejays stressed the importance of having two good days of practice prior to Wednesday’s game at Bradley. The players responded Monday, putting together as good of a practice as they’ve had in several weeks.
“Today everyone had a great attitude and worked at trying to get better,” Creighton guard Austin Chatman said. “We knew today had to be a good day of prep, that’s all there is to it. We know what’s at stake.”
Creighton coach Greg McDermott was obviously pleased with the effort that opened a big week for a team that stands 22-7 but has lost six of its last 11 games.
The Bluejays are one game behind Wichita State in the Missouri Valley standings. If they can win at Bradley, they would go into Saturday’s final regular season game against the Shockers assured of playing for at least a share of the conference title.
Wichita State plays Wednesday at home against Evansville, which posted a 71-67 victory over the Shockers in early January. One key factor heading into that game is that Purple Aces guard Ned Cox, the team’s second-leading scorer, is day-to-day with a foot injury.
Creighton can’t afford to be scoreboard watching on Wednesday during their game against Bradley in Peoria, Ill. The Braves have won six of their eight Valley home games, with the losses coming to Northern Iowa by three points and Wichita State by six points.
Bradley’s seven conference wins are five more than the Braves posted a season ago in Geno Ford’s first season as coach, while their 16 wins are nine more than last season.
Ford is encouraged by the strides his program has made in year two.
“I feel like our toughness and competitive spirit is where it needs to be,” Ford said. “Last year, I felt like most teams took us like a bye on the schedule. I don’t think it’s that way this year. Both of our home losses were one-possession games at the end, and we could have won either one of those games.
“Last season, we had no chance to win any of them. I feel that people have to prepare for us when they play us. We’re at least offering some level of resistance. Our road record is still not where it needs to be, but we’ve made some improvement there. We have seven (league) wins, with two swings left.”
The Braves have a chance to land a serious blow to Creighton’s title hopes. Meanwhile, the Bluejays want desperately to get a win that would make Saturday’s game against Wichita State a showdown for a championship.
Monday’s solid practice was a step in that direction.
“Coach said after the (St. Mary’s) game that we needed our two best days of the whole year to start getting ready,” guard Avery Dingman said. “Everyone was really positive today. There was a lot of energy and everyone was flying around.
“That was really encouraging.”
Sophomores Chatman and Dingman are two of the players who have experienced some tough times during the past 11 games. Chatman, the starter at the point, is struggling with his shot, and his assists average is off almost two per game from the season’s first 18 games.
Dingman’s scoring average has dropped from 5.8 points over the first 18 games to 1.7 over the past 11. He is shooting 27.8 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from 3-point range, and his playing time has decreased about five minutes per game.
Both players say they are still confident they can provide the team with what it needs from them in spite the recent tough times.
“My confidence is still very high,” Chatman said. “We really have to enjoy these last games and embrace the moment. We just have to give it all that we have, and I’m excited to get this thing back on track.”
Chatman continues to spend extra time in the gym working on a shot that has strayed off target. In the first 18 games, Chatman shot 43.7 percent from the field and 52.9 percent from 3-point range. He was particularly adept at making opponents pay for double-teaming the Bluejays’ inside players.
In the last 11 games, Chatman is shooting 35.3 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc.
“I learned a lot when I went through a slump last year,” Chatman said. “It was tough but I learned you just have to stay with it. I have to stay in the gym, working on my craft and trying to get better every day.”
Dingman, too, knows there is no easy way to dig himself out of a rut.
“I just have to get back to what I was doing,” Dingman said. “I was coming into games, flying around, diving on loose balls. From that, my offense and defense will come. I just need to bring some energy, and when I do, my shots will start dropping.”
Dingman remains confident in his ability to help the Bluejays down the stretch, just as he was when his playing time increased in early December when Josh Jones was forced out of the lineup because of a heart issue.
“When Josh went down, I was playing some big minutes and I rose to the occasion,” Dingman said. “I hit a lull when I wasn’t making shots but I think I can get back to where I was.”
Chatman and Dingman aren’t the only Bluejays that are struggling. Staying positive in the moment, McDermott said, is a priority.
“The thing they have to remember is that the team still has confidence in them,” McDermott said. “The coaches still have confidence in them. It’s a long season. Guys are going to have peaks and valleys and slumps.
“We just have a few guys that are in one at the wrong time but they have to remember that we still believe in them.”
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