PHILADELPHIA — Creighton took its shot at Duke, at history, at the Sweet 16 on Sunday night.
And missed again.
Let’s put aside the travesty that was the referee convention in this third-round NCAA tournament game. There were too many whistles, too many touch calls, too many stoppages in play so we could see the zebras preen for the cameras.
But the absurdities went both ways, as did the lack of offensive flow. These were two teams ready to give us a variety show of offenses and an encore to the high-flying Florida Gulf Coast circus that appeared just before this one.
Instead, this was playing and coaching with one hand tied behind your back. But choppy and ugly went both ways. Both coaches had to adjust, both teams had to come up with a Plan B.
This wasn’t about a blown call.
This was more about a blown opportunity for Creighton.
The program has never had a better shot at the next level than this one. Not Maryland in 1999. Not Illinois in 2002. Not North Carolina a year ago.
A win over Duke was ripe for the plucking. But the Bluejays, known for their offensive efficiency and power, picked a lousy time for a clunker.
That’s what will hurt into the offseason, an uncertain one with a new league to recruit for and a star player deciding his future.
Former Creighton coach Dana Altman’s Oregon team made the Sweet 16 on Saturday. Then came Wichita State, with its upset of Gonzaga. Was it Creighton’s turn? The vibe at the Jays’ hotel was good.
But something got lost on the way to the arena. Creighton showed up with Wichita State’s offense. (not the one that beat Gonzaga!)
The Jays shot a stunningly bad 30 percent (16 of 53) as a team, and it was more embarrassing from the 3-point line, their home away from home (2 of 19). Yes, 2 of 19 from 3-point land. Creighton.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Doug McDermott said in an emotional locker room. “Two for 19. That’s not us. So disappointing.”
The real eye-opener was Ethan Wragge’s 3-point line.
Zero. For zero.
If No. 34 can’t take a 3, much less make one, how are you supposed to beat Duke?
Precisely what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski must have said in the scouting meeting.
Give the Blue Devils and the great Coach K credit here. Their offense wasn’t much to look at it, but their defensive game plan was a thing of beauty.
“They did a great job defending us,” Wragge said. “They did an unbelievable job of switching every screen and the pick-and-pops. They were really in my grill. I swear, one time, I was three feet inbounds and they were all over me. I could hear them say, ‘Don’t let him catch it.’
“For a two-day prep, that’s pretty impressive. But we also missed a lot of shots we don’t normally miss.”
But look who took them. Point guard Austin Chatman was 2 for 11, and 1 for 6 from 3-point land. Off-guard Jahenns Manigat is known for his defense, and actually did a nice job on Seth Curry.
But Manigat took seven shots, made one. And was 0 for 4 from behind the line.
If you’re an opposing coach, that’s who you want taking the non-Doug shots.
Doug McDermott got 16 shots. Made four. He had 21 points, but that was because he got to the line. But the story of Doug was also the story of this game: too many times he got his patented inside shots but they rolled off the rim.
The Jays got a lot of looks inside, drives to the hoops, layup attempts, that missed.
You saw it time and again, shots that were short, or too long, rushed and occasionally forced. This was not the Creighton we’ve seen all year, but this was not Bradley in the CenturyLink Center in late January, either.
That’s Duke defense. That’s also pressure. That’s also a team pressing in the big moment. And sometimes you have one of those nights.
It was a bad time for a bad night.
You’ll hear that Coach K out-coached Greg McDermott today and there’s truth to that.
Duke put the game on CU’s guards and made it harder than ever for McDermott to catch and do his Dougie thing.
But the Jays have seen a lot of defenses this year, too. Wichita State switched on screens, too, got physical. Creighton has had other guys step up and make plays this year, including Chatman and Manigat.
Not last night, a night which exposed some things about the Creighton program.
The place where Coach K outcoached Mac was on the recruiting trail. There aren’t a lot of Big East or ACC-type players on Creighton’s roster or coming off that bench into the game. Not a lot of options when things go dry against Duke.
These two NCAA games in Philly showed the kind of defense that CU will see on a regular basis. There’s work to be done on the recruiting trail. Lots of it. Mac has plans to stay back East this week to recruit, apparently in New York City. Good idea.
And yet, for all of that, Coach K’s Duke kept the Jays hanging around in a lackluster first half. Creighton had to feel good only down six at the half, and that in part because of a desperate 3 that went in at the buzzer.
But in a second half where the big men were handcuffed by the refs, and somebody had to step up, Duke’s wing men did. Creighton’s didn’t. Thank you and drive home safely.
The end came with emotion, hugs from coach McDermott for Grant Gibbs, as he came out, and then Doug. Mac gave an emotional speech in the locker room. Not many dry eyes in the room.
The media encircled Doug, and he talked about decisions to make, wanting to play in Madison Square Garden, and all the different factors. He said he planned to go to the Final Four in two weeks and made it sound like he might wake up one day and make his decision.
Let the drama begin.
What we saw was the end of an era on Sunday night, the Valley era. Maybe the end of two eras, if you include Doug. It was a bittersweet finish. This team got a lot done this year, a lot to be proud of, but still left something on the table, the thing it really wanted.
The good news is the next era. In the old days of the Valley, this would be viewed as a valuable chance wasted. But with the Big East looming, the Jays can be back here, and sooner than anyone thinks, if Greg McDermott and his staff can adjust recruiting and find a style that works in this league.
They can still get another shot at Coach K, at the Sweet 16. But they’ll need to get bigger, more athletic. And some guys who can score. You can never have too many.
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