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                             First Downs and Second Guesses

                          Blog #206 - December 2022

            Creighton men’s basketball team received a lot of pre-season publicity before the 2022-2023 season because of their strong finish to last season when they took eventual national champion Kansas to the wire in the Sweet 16.  They were returning the bulk of their team, including Big East Defender of the Year Ryan Kalkbrenner.  The Bluejays were picked as high as number 7 in many of this year’s pre-season polls.  They were also predicted to be Big East Conference champions.  There was even talk of the team being Final Four-caliber.

                        A lot has happened since the season began.  The team started 6-0, including a win over current Top-10 Arkansas in an NCAA tournament-intensity-feel game in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii.  Even though the Jays lost to Arizona by a bucket in the championship game in Maui, the team still had a lot of confidence when they returned to the mainland.

                        But things have changed dramatically in the past couple weeks.  The Jays are on a six-game losing streak, losing to Nebraska at home, then to BYU and Arizona State in Las Vegas, then losing their Big East opener at Marquette.  Kalkbrenner has missed the past four games with a non-Covid illness, rumored to be mono.  The once sharpshooting team now can’t hit an outside shot consistently.  Two of their starters, sophomores Ryan Nembhard and Trey Alexander, seem to be experiencing the “Sophomore Slump”, unable to hit open shots or hit open teammates with accurate passes.  The bench, also young and inexperienced, isn’t contributing when on the floor.

                        Coach Greg McDermott has kept a positive approach with the team in the media.  But he still claims that no true leader has positioned himself on the team, which he sees as a negative at this point.

                        So how does a sport psychologist view this situation, and how does Creighton get back in the win column?

                        First, the pre-season schedule put together by McDermott has been extremely difficult.  With the level of players returning to the team and others gained through the transfer portal, McDermott was very confident and wanted to challenge his team as much as possible.  There has been a lot of (long) travel to Hawaii and Vegas and the competition are all experiencing very successful seasons so far.  The grind of all that travel and intensity from competitors tends to break a team down physically and mentally if the ball isn’t dropping through the hoop.

                        Health problems have also surfaced, especially with Kalkbrenner.  It was also reported that every player returned from Hawaii with some kind of illness.  Are some players playing sick?  If so, that will break you down physically very quickly.

                        Creighton’s offensive success historically under McDermott has been fueled by strong defensive execution.  That hasn’t been happening during the six-game skid.  Turnovers are up, steals are down, and rebounding is a little underpar.  Transition points off the opponent’s turnovers are not adding up like in the past.  Add poor shooting percentages (both 3-point and 2-point) to the mix, and you are witnessing how a six-game losing streak can occur.

                        How the players reacted to all the pre-season hype hasn’t been documented.  My thought is that McDermott did a good job of tempering all that hype with the players.  But it’s tough to keep upbeat when things are not going your way on the court.

                        A prescription to return to winning ways?  First, every player has to get his health back.  Hopefully, sooner than later.  Every player needs to contribute on the floor.  Creighton has proven that three guys playing well and two not playing well adds up to defeat.  Confidence needs to return for each player, either in the way of scoring or making defensive plays.  Players must generate momentum plays on the floor, like diving for loose balls and making clutch free throws.  Bench players need to make their minutes count in a positive way.  Creighton needs to get the “hunter” mentality back instead of operating as the “hunted” team on the floor.

                        As most coaches say: It’s not how you start the season, but how you end it.  There is a lot of season to go.  Creighton needs to put together all the elements mentioned above to be playing their best basketball in March.  It can happen.  But it will be an uphill climb most of the way.





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