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Big East Season Preview: Creighton Bluejays

A bright, warm horizon is peaking over the hill and splashing the Bluejays with a new wave of key players. Will they make it to the promised land?

It's a new dawn, it's a new day for the Creighton Bluejays.
It's a new dawn, it's a new day for the Creighton Bluejays.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

2014-15 Record

14-19 (4-14 Big East) T-9th. Decimated by graduation, the Bluejays were unable to gather themselves to be a formidable opponent in the Big East. After 5 straight wins to start the season the Bluejays went 4-4 in their final eight non-conference games. Wins over no.18 Oklahoma (65-63) and in-state rival Nebraska (65-55) were highlights while losses at Tulsa (64-77) and North Texas (58-62) were the lowpoints.


Greg McDermott will be returning for his sixth season at Creighton with an overall record of 121-57, good for a .680 winning percentage. After inheriting a pretty mediocre Creighton team in his first year at the University, McDermott was able to take a 23-16 team and turn them into a 29-6 team. The 14-19 mark of last year is his first sub-.500 season as head coach and his first since his years at Iowa State (where he was sub-.500 for his entire tenure.) McDermott coaches an offense that utilizes motion to get shooters open from beyond the arc. The one thing that has marred his reputation is his inconsistent defensive squads. McDermott will attempt to reach the NCAA tournament for the 7th time in his coaching career this year, hoping to get past the 3rd round for the first time ever.

Key Returnees

C Geoffrey Groselle (Sr.) - SG James Milliken (Sr.) - SG Isaiah Zierden (Jr.) - SF Toby Hegner (So.)
A good portion of last year's core returns to the Bluejay squad in 2015-16. Milliken came on very strong in the second half of last year while Groselle anchored the team down low. Hegner seemed to struggle a bit to find rhythm throughout the year but he was just a freshman and has a very high ceiling. Zierden was unfortunately bitten by the knee eating monster for the second year in a row forcing his status from a key role player to simply a sixth man this year.

Key Departures

PG Austin Chatman (Graduation)
SF/SG Avery Dingman (Graduation)
G Devin Brooks (Graduation)
SF Ricky Kreklow (Graduation)
PF/C Will 'Big Swag' Artino (Graduation)
Going into last year I thought Chatman was going to be the catalyst to the 14-15 squad, but his inconsistent offensive performances and 'meh' defense left a lot to be desired. The players lost may just be a bit of addition by subtraction considering the next note below.

Notable Additions

SF/PF Cole Huff (Jr.) - PG Maurice Watson Jr. (Jr.) - G Khyri Thomas (Fr.) - PG Malik Albert (Jr.) - Martin 'Slovenian Assassin' Krampelj (Fr.)
Oh my the additions for this year were simply blissful. Allowing a year for the hoop talent of Huff and Watson to absorb McDermott's offensive scheme will cause havoc against any defense this year. The two will be the cogs that run the 'Let It Fly' machine, with Khyri Thomas securing the spinning contraption with lockdown defense while the Slovenian Assassin silently slices up defenders to keep the gears greased.

Last Season at a Glance

I remember thinking last year that the bare bones left behind from the Dougie & Friends era would leave this team with no shot at accomplishing anything. While watching the first half of the Oklahoma game early on in the season I nodded and smiled like some smug punk. I thought I was right. Then some sort of magical event began to take place.

The Bluejays came back and won against no.8 Oklahoma at home. It was one of the most incredible comebacks I'd seen since the waning years of Dana Altman's tenure at the University (Creighton would routinely drop 15-20 points behind and claw their way back to win in those days.) The entire season ended up playing out like that. A grand total of 12 games were decided by 4 points or less, 10 of those were losses. The Big East tournament was no exception to this rule as the Bluejays played the Hoyas close until the final minute, eventually losing by 5. At the end of the year, I couldn't have been happier. This team accomplished something I never thought possible, coming so close to attaining another 20 win season.

3 Reasons for Optimism

Transfer Talent

The Bluejays have some of the most impressive talent in the transfers they wrangled up in the past couple years. Cole Huff, a transfer from Nevada who earned Mountain West honorable mention status during the 2013-2014 seasons, will make a significant impact on the offensive side as a 6'8 215lb wingman who features premier offensive skills and a drive on the defensive side. Huff averaged 13.2 PPG in his last full season of college basketball at Nevada and finished 12th in scoring in the Mountain West Conference. He'll be key for the Bluejays when it comes to crunch time as he poured in 31 points in double OT against a tough Fresno State squad during the aforementioned 13-14 season. He was able to sit out last year with a redshirt, allowing him to gain complete knowledge of Greg McDermott's system while spending some time polishing his game.
Couple that with Boston U transfer Maurice Watson Jr, a highly touted offensive skill player, and you've got a recipe for success. Watson Jr is adept at sharing the ball, ranking third nationally in his last full college basketball season averaging 7.1 assists per game. A guy at point who can pass the ball to Creighton's potent shooters is integral to McDermott's offense and should allow the guys around him to sit on the perimeter and score from beyond the arc.
The combination of these two, with Huff being more of a slasher than a shooter and Watson Jr being more of a passer than a shooter, should give guys like Hegner, Zierden, Milliken and Krampelj the opportunity to sit out on their spots and shoot at will. There are no question marks when it comes to Watson Jr's skill at point which could lead to a hefty load of points.

Scoring Galore

Creighton has built a reputation for being a pretty swell place to play if you like to shoot the ball from real far away. When the Bluejays rebranded themselves with a new logo, new conference and new expectations, they carried a pretty simplistic motto for their offensive gameplan: Let It Fly. This caters to the sensible part in our conscious minds when we think of birds, as they're quite prone to flying, but now it's been applied to Greg McDermott's offensive style. It seems apparent that recruiting some of the best shooters in the nation has become a strategic plot to fill Creighton's roster with players who just love to Let It Fly.
That appears to be the mantra this year as the team is compounded with a bunch of rangy three shooters. James Milliken? He can Let It Fly. Isaiah Zierden? Oh boy, he loves to Let It Fly. The Slovenian Assassin, Malik 'Motown' Albert, Ronnie Harrell Jr.? All three just can't wait to Let It Fly. If all these guys, just waiting to Let It Fly, can get hot at the same time there's absolutely no stopping them. It'll surely be a sight to see.

Lieutenant Khyri Thomas

Khyri Thomas is an Omaha, Nebraska native. He went to Benson High School and led the state with 19.2 PPG, averaged 7 rebounds per contest, and was named to the 2014 All-Nebraska team. After his tenure as a Benson Bunny, Thomas went to Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Virginia. There, he was able to operate his life off the grid and learned that hard work and determination are the roots for the tree of success. With a bit of discipline under his belt, the Lieutenant returned home to play for the Creighton Bluejays and bring his offensive and defensive prowess into the starting lineup. As far as defensive sparkplugs on defense, it appears that he will be in a pack of few this season, but my lord is his defense something to marvel at.

3 Reasons for Pessimism

Live by the three, die by the three

As previously stated, this Bluejay squad is a free shooting team. In years past they've been known to get on hot and cold streaks. During the hot streaks they're undeniably one of the most difficult teams to defend as it can appear that they can hit shots from seemingly anywhere on the court. Unfortunately, as was the case last year, when the team gets cold they're really bad. In their 5 wins against Big East foes last year (including post season), Creighton shot 48% on average from the field and 42% from 3. In their 15 losses against Big East foes (including post season) the Bluejays shot 36% on average from the field and 30% from 3. That's just really... bad. Like the weather on a single day Omaha, the Bluejays were highly inconsistent on a game-to-game basis. In fact, they had a pretty stellar shooting performance against St. John's one game, shooting 42% from the field and 43% from 3, only to shoot 21% and 23% the very next game against Georgetown. If the inconsistency continues into this year for the Bluejays, we may be looking at a repeat of last year.

Defensive Liabilities

Creighton has never really been known to be a defensive power. In fact, as far as defense is concerned, they were pretty much bottom of the barrel. Creighton ranked 212th in team defense efficiency last year, 176th in scoring defense, 329th in steals per game, and allowing teams to shoot 38% from three point land, ranking them at an alarming 326th in the nation. Sure, the Bluejays can score lots of points but they can also just lay down in the grass and play with dandelions while the other team scores seemingly at will. If the defense doesn't improve this year... it might a blue Christmas in Omaha - wait that sounds optomistic, let me reword that - it might be a very sad-lets-cry-in-the-corner Christmas in Omaha. Yeah, that's a lot more accurate.

The Unclutchiness Factor

The Bluejays were a lot of fun to watch last year since it seemed like they kept most games pretty close. If you're a historical masochist then you should go back and watch all of Creighton's games from last year to get an accurate sense of the phrase 'edge of your seat.' When Creighton went down 25+ points to North Texas I couldn't stop laughing. I laughed one of those really good belly laughs because the team I'd invested in since I was a small child was getting blown out in front of, like, 45 people in a teeny tiny gymnasium. I had pretty much given up and decided to start writing nonsense on my computer. From time to time I'd look over my shoulder and check the game because sometimes it's nice to be reassured of disappointment. Suddenly, Creighton was on a run. They made up 10 points. Then 20 points. Soon enough they were on a 31-6 rally, and with about 40 seconds left in the game they were only down by 3. I began pacing in my living room, shaking my head and on the cusp of some sort of psychosis. As the 40 seconds trickled ever so slowly off the clock the Bluejays had 4 different opportunities to cash in and tie the game. They missed all 4. My heart sank. I was confused and my stomach was doing this weird thing it only does after I've made a regrettable meal choice (I'm looking at you, Runza).
Creighton did this to me a lot last year. In the throes of a college basketball game they most certainly should not be winning, they start to, or come close to it, then lose at the very last second. I was in attendance at the Seton Hall game where Sterling Gibbs casually tossed in a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to win. I sat, rapt in attention, as Creighton went toe-to-toe with Georgetown in the Big East Tournament. I like to use my sensitive gut to perceive these last second losses as a learning lesson for the players, but I know that's a fools errand. Creighton didn't win close games last year because they didn't have the talent. Will they win those close games this year? Because of turnover, it's hard to say, but my heart and my stomach will have to bear it.

Best Case Scenario

Maurice Watson and Cole Huff carry the Bluejays on their backs offensively making up the production lost from two year prior. Toby Hegner steps up big and contributes in big moments and becomes the clutch player everyone thinks he is. Groselle and Thomas become absolute terrors on the defensive side of the ball and force turnovers like it's a bakery in San Francisco. Krampelj has a freshman season for the ages and makes the entire nation of Slovenia proud. Greg McDermott's offensive style becomes nationally known for tenacious defense and potent 3 point shooters. If all these things happen and the offense and defense sync, we're looking at a very dangerous squad that could disrupt the month of March.

Worst Case Scenario

Malik Albert doesn't get a handle on the offense as a backup point guard leaving Watson to chew minutes and burn out quickly. Groselle being unable to stay on the court longer than 3 minutes at a time before becoming gassed. Hegner diving head first into a sophomore slump while the Slovenian Assassin can't seem to find the correct pace for American hoops. Huff turns out to be a bust and Milliken becomes ice cold on offense. Zierden can't recover from his multiple knee injuries. If Creighton can't live by the three they will die, very quickly, by it. If Greg McDermott fails to get his team to execute on defense the fate will be waiting in the balance.