Creighton's play during the first month of the college basketball season has shown that there is more the Bluejays can squeeze out of their games.
At its best, Creighton has showcased the offensive lethalness that has characterized the program the past two seasons.
But the Bluejays also have shown that they aren't above lapses, raising at least a few doubts about how they'll fare in Big East play.
“I think our whole team knows what happens when we don't play like we're capable of playing,” forward Ethan Wragge said.
What's been encouraging is that Creighton has kept those moments to a minimum. Granted, the Bluejays threw in a stinker against George Washington in the Wooden Legacy tournament when they couldn't make shots and couldn't keep the Colonials from coming up with key baskets down the stretch.
In the same tournament, Creighton also couldn't handle San Diego State's athleticism at times. The Bluejays were good enough at the beginning and the end to have a chance to win before letting it slip away in the final 30 seconds.
“The reality of it is that we have two losses,” coach Greg McDermott said. “We had the ball down three against San Diego State and we didn't execute well enough. We had the lead in the last two minutes of the game against GW and let that get away. We're three minutes away from being perfect.
“Does that mean we're perfect? No. There are a lot of areas that we need to improve. Having said that, we've played some very good basketball at times. It's just about trying to put it together for 40 minutes.”
That's a message the coaches have preached to the players, so much so that it has become the party line as Creighton prepares for its final three nonconference games. The Bluejays have this week off for finals before hosting Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Tuesday, California on Dec. 22 and Chicago State on Dec. 29.
After that, Creighton will dig into its first season of Big East play. The Bluejays make their conference debut Dec. 31 at home against Marquette.
In building a 7-2 record, Creighton has demonstrated its offensive efficiency. The Bluejays are second in the nation in 3-pointers per game (11.4), sixth in 3-point field-goal percentage (44.0) and assists per game (18.7) and ninth in assists (168).
Creighton also is in the top 35 in scoring (32nd, 83.2 points per game) and field-goal percentage (35th, .491).
The Bluejays' numbers aren't as impressive on the other end, where they rank 116th in scoring defense (68.4 points per game), 93rd in field-goal percentage defense (.409) and 168th in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.335).
“Defensively, we could be a little more solid,” guard Jahenns Manigat said. “In the games we lost, we didn't pay attention to the scouting report or we didn't finish off a possession the way we know we're capable of.
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“Having so many veteran guys, this is something we can't settle for and it's something we have to get better at.”
In discussing areas where Creighton needs to improve before conference play, Manigat and several teammates talk more about intangibles than numbers. Manigat said the Bluejays have to be able to sustain a higher level of play longer than they have in the first nine games.
“The coaches always say it takes a little bit more than you think you're capable of giving out,” Manigat said. “That little bit makes such a difference because everyone is giving it. If we can figure out how to give just a little bit more than we're giving as a team, we're going to make a big stride.”
Creighton's offense has allowed it to build big leads in several games, but the inability to sustain that level of play frustrates both coaches and players.
“I'm not sure our second-wind play is as good as I'd like it to be,” McDermott said. “Our initial surge has been good all yearlong but it's when we get tired or go to the bench, we haven't always been able to capture that same focus and intensity that we started the game with.”
Wragge points to Sunday's performance against Nebraska as an example of the Bluejays' lack of killer instinct. Creighton blew out to a 38-8 lead after 13 minutes before settling for an 82-67 victory.
“We get big leads early in games and I'd like to see us stay on them,” Wragge aid. “We kind of let off the gas pedal and not put that killer blow on them. We want to string together that full game and not take a couple of plays or a couple of minutes off.”
The bottom line, Wragge said, is that Creighton needs to find a way to put a full game together.
“We haven't played our best basketball yet,” Wragge said. “We've played minutes and halves of our best basketball but we haven't played a full game yet.”
Grant Gibbs agreed.
“We have spurts where we're really, really good,” Gibbs said, “but then we'll get fatigued and all of a sudden we'll start making game-planning mistakes that we didn't make earlier in the game.”
Against NU, Creighton held the Huskers without points on 21 of their first 27 possessions. The Bluejays then got just 11 stops in the final 24 minutes.
“They didn't beat us with anything in the second half that they didn't do in the first half,” Gibbs said. “We just defended it the way we were taught in the first half and in the second half we didn't.
“There's really no excuse for that. It's those lapses in games that are keeping us from playing that full 40 minutes.”
At the same time, Gibbs said, there have been enough encouraging signs to convince the Bluejays that they aren't far from doing special things.
“It really feels like we're on the cusp of making that next step,” Gibbs said. “I think there is another gear to this team that would really make us a good team.
“It feels like we're right there, but sometimes that next step is the toughest to get you to that next level.”