College basketball seasons are filled with unexpected twists and turns that can disrupt or even destroy the best-laid plans. Torn ACLs. High ankle sprains. Fractured wrists. Arrests. Suspensions. Academic issues.
You name it, it's possible.
At Creighton, it was mononucleosis.
The Bluejays' best player, Ryan Kalkbrenner, was diagnosed with mononucleosis in early December and sidelined for three games. In a related note, the Bluejays dropped all three of those games to extend a resume-damaging losing streak to six contests. Unsurprisingly, they lost their ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and fell to 29th at KenPom.com and 51st in the NET. It was a rough stretch that largely removed Creighton from the national conversation, but Greg McDermott's team has quietly spent the past five-plus weeks reestablishing itself as a Big East contender with Kalkbrenner back in the lineup.
The latest win came Saturday.
Creighton 84, No. 13 Xavier 67.
Kalkbrenner took nine shots against the Musketeers, made eight of them and finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. The Bluejays are 7-2 since he rejoined the lineup. They've gone from 29th to 11th at KenPom.com, from 51st to 18th in the NET. In this nine-game stretch that represents Kalkbrenner's return, Creighton is performing like the fourth-best team in the country, according to BartTorvik.com.
"I feel like we're still one of the better teams in the country," said Creighton point guard Ryan Nembhard, who finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Xavier. "We know who we are. We've been working towards it all year. It's just been a work in progress all year. We knew there was gonna be ups and downs in the year. It wasn't gonna be all sunshine and lollipops. But it's been good, man. We're continuing to get better."
Indeed, they are.
Saturday's 17-point victory improved the Bluejays to 13-8 overall, 7-3 in the Big East. They're now just one game back in the loss column of the three teams that are tied for first in the loss column of the league standings -- Xavier, Marquette and Providence. In other words, Creighton winning the Big East title it was picked to win in the preseason remains a possibility. If it happens, the Bluejays would become the first power-conference team in at least 20 years to win a regular-season championship after losing six straight contests. Among the things working in Creighton's favor is that one-third of the Bluejays' nine remaining regular-season games are against Georgetown or DePaul, i.e. the two worst teams in the Big East.
Will Creighton do it?
I have no idea.
But one thing I'm certain of is that the Bluejays are good enough to do it -- especially if they keep playing the way they've been playing since Kalkbrenner returned to the rotation. I wasn't sure I'd ever type that sentence again during that losing streak back in December, but I'm comfortable typing it now because it's clear that Creighton is finally as good as most assumed Creighton would be, if not better.
The Bluejays are trending positively.
Hopefully everybody stays healthy the rest of the way.