(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By ERIC OLSON
AP Sports Writer
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Doug McDermott isn't dominating the way he was a month ago, and Creighton's returning All-American thinks he knows why.
"A lot of it is on me and the kind of effort I give out," McDermott said. "Earlier in the year, it came a little easier because teams hadn't seen me as much. Now that we're in the grind of conference play, teams are figuring us out a little more and putting a lot of attention on me."
McDermott is averaging 15.6 points over the last five games - production that would be more than acceptable for most players. But McDermott has established himself as one of the country's most prolific offensive players the past two seasons, and he's averaged nearly 20 points for his career.
As he goes so go the Bluejays (22-6), and they aren't the same team they were a month ago, either. They're 5-5 since starting 17-1 and play Saturday at Saint Mary's (23-5) in the BracketBusters' featured matchup.
McDermott's total of 78 points the last five games is his fewest over a five-game span since he was a freshman two years ago.
Once considered among the front-runners for national player of the year, McDermott now is often mentioned among the second tier of candidates even though he started the week second nationally in scoring with his season average of 22.9 points.
"He's still the same player, and highly regarded and valued," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "Seasons have ups and downs, even for POY candidates. Doug is in my top five. He's a great player having an outstanding year."
McDermott has had five games of 30 points or better, and he scored 21 or more in 17 of the Bluejays' first 23 games.
He bounced back from an eight-point game at Indiana State on Feb. 6 with 24 against Illinois State - both losses - and then had 15 in a loss at Northern Iowa. He then scored 21 in a win at Evansville before Southern Illinois, the last-place team in the Missouri Valley Conference, clamped down on him Tuesday and held him to 10.
Valley opponents have done all they can to deny McDermott the ball, and when he gets it they run double- and triple-teams at him.
"Limit his catches. When he gives it up, don't let him get it back," Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said.
McDermott took 15 or more shots in eight of Creighton's first 11 Valley games. He's taken 12 or fewer in four of the last five.
While opponents have concentrated on stopping McDermott, the rest of the Bluejays haven't capitalized as much as they would have liked on the scoring opportunities afforded to the players left open.
Creighton's offense is best when McDermott is touching the ball on almost every possession.
"That's always our emphasis," senior guard Grant Gibbs said. "But as teams take that away, you kind of tend to float away from it, and it's something we've got to fight. Every opportunity he has to get a touch down there you have to take advantage."
McDermott is creative when it comes to working for position in the post, and he's always among the first players down the court in transition. Gibbs said McDermott needs to bark at teammates who don't find him.
"We all realize why he needs the ball, because he's so crazy efficient, his numbers are so good and when he plays well we play well," Gibbs said.
McDermott is shooting 45.8 percent overall and 29.4 percent on 3-pointers the last five games. Those figures are well below his 56.5 percent and 51 percent at the 23-game mark.
McDermott said he simply must play harder to break out of his mini slump.
"I think my offensive rebounding numbers have to be better. I have to get to the free throw line and just be more aggressive out there," he said. "I can't worry about touches. I know they're going to come within the flow of the game. We have unselfish guys. I'm not worried about that."
The Bluejays, once considered a lock for the NCAA tournament, risk being on the outside looking in if they don't finish the regular season strong or win the Valley tournament.
After Saint Mary's, the Bluejays finish at Bradley (15-13) and at home against Wichita State (23-5) in a game that could decide the Valley regular-season title.
"We have a couple good challenges the rest of the way and then we go to St. Louis," McDermott said. "We're going to make the most of it and get back to playing Creighton basketball."