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Big East 2016-17 Season Preview: #22 Creighton Bluejays

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High expectations meet the high flying, talent-laden Bluejays

2015/2016 Review

20-15 (9-9 in conference)

The Good Stuff:

  • Winning the Las Vegas ‘Men Who Speak Up’ tournament with wins over Rutgers and UMass - trophies are cool.
  • Beating Nebraska again 83-67
  • Starting the conference slate 5-2, defying expectations
  • Beating #4 Xavier at home
  • Shelling BAMA and Wagner in the NIT
  • The arrival of Maurice Watson Jr., and Khyri Thomas

The Bad Stuff:

  • Losing to Loyola-Chicago, getting housed by Indiana and Oklahoma, dropping the nightmare inducing last second thriller against ASU
  • Defensive woes continued (allowed 72.4PPG - good for 188th in the nation)
  • Following their 5-2 stretch, the Jays lost three straight games - including a devastating collapse to Georgetown where they led by 11 with 2:32 remaining in the game
  • Injuries that, at some point in time, sidelined Martin Krampelj, Cole Huff, Isaiah Zierden, and Zach Hanson.
  • The season ending loss to BYU in the NIT.

Style of Play / Coaching

Coach Greg McDermott enters his seventh season at Creighton, boasting a 141-72 record. Previous to coaching at Creighton, McDermott began his coaching career as an assistant at the University of North Dakota in 1989 before taking the head coaching position at Wayne State College in 1994. After six seasons in Wayne, McDermott took a head coaching job at North Dakota State in 2000 before jumping to the Valley and taking the reins at the University of Northern Iowa in 2001. He then got the call to take over at Iowa State, where he spent four seasons before becoming the head coach at Creighton.

Beloved by players, McDermott preaches of a culture-first program, where brotherhood through the sport of basketball reigns supreme. He’s also known for an extremely deep playbook, displaying a nearly infinite amount of offensive sets. These offensive sets are set in a short amount of time in transition, with many off-ball screens being utilized to get a shooter open within the first ten seconds of the shot clock.

Because of this offensive blitzkreig, the mantra of ‘Let it Fly’ was adopted during the first four years of McDermott’s tenure at Creighton. Some have likened the offense to that of the Chip Kelly-era Oregon Duck handegg offense. Matt Giles, then at Deadspin, was so enamored with the phenomenon that he ran an entire feature on it.

As far as his recruiting acumen is concerned, McDermott has a top 40 recruiting class on its way to campus for the 2017 season.

Returning Players

*bold denotes potential starters

*all statistics are for 2015-16, unless noted otherwise

** - Ineligible for 2016-17 season

G Khyri Thomas - Sophomore - 6’3 205lbs - Omaha, NE 34GP/18.6MPG 6.2PPG/3.7RPG/47% FG

F Ronnie Harrell Jr. - Sophomore - 6’7 195lbs - Denver, CO 29GP/10.2MPG 3.2PPG/2.6RPG/36% FG

PG Maurice Watson Jr. - Senior - 5’10 175lbs - Philadelphia, PA 35GP/31.4MPG 14.1PPG/6.5APG/47.5% FG

G Tyler Clement - Junior - 6’1 185lbs - Shawnee, KS 31GP/4.5MPG 1.1PPG/1APG/41% FG

F Cole Huff - Senior - 6’8 220lbs - Altadena, CA 35GP/22.2MPG 11.3PPG/5.1RPG/43% FG

C/F Martin Krampelj - RS Freshman - 6’9 225lbs - Grosuplje, Slovenia 7GP/6.6MPG 2.9PPG/3.6RPG/47% FG

G Isaiah Zierden - Senior - 6’3 190lbs - Minneapolis, MN 31GP/31.7MPG 10.2PPG/1.4SPG/40% FG

C Justin Patton - RS Freshman - 7’ 230lbs - Omaha, NE (2014-15 HS) 14.1PPG/9.9RPG/3.6 BPG

F Toby Hegner - Junior - 6’10 235lbs - Berlin, WI 33GP/17.6MPG 5.3PPG/3.8RPG/35% FG

C Zach Hanson - Senior - 6’9 245lbs - Pierre, SD 35 GP/15MPG 6.8PPG/3.1RPG/65% FG

Departed Players

G Marlon Stewart - Transfer

G Malik Albert - Transfer

G James Milliken - Graduation

C Geoffrey Groselle - Graduation

New Additions

G Marcus Foster - Junior - 6’3 210lbs - Wichita Falls, TX / Transfer from Kansas State (2014-15 KState) 29GP/27.8MPG 12.5PPG/2.3RPG/38% FG

PG Davion Mintz - Freshman - 6’3 175lbs - Huntersville, NC (2015-16 HS) 20.7PPG/6.9APG/5.4RPG

G Jordan Scurry - Freshman - 6’2 205lbs - Dedham, MA (AAU) 7.8PPG/2.1RPG/.8APG

G Kobe Paras - Freshman - 6’6 220lbs - Manila, Philippines / Los Angeles, CA (2015-16 HS) 15PPG/4.3RPG/2.5SPG

**PG Kaleb Joseph - Junior - 6’3 180lbs - Nashua, NH / Transfer from Syracuse 19GP/6MPG .8PPG/.6APG/18% FG

Reasons for Optimism

The Backcourt

This may be the most talented team in Creighton history top to bottom. There’s a whole lot of room for optimism, with many calling Creighton’s backcourt the best in college basketball with the implementation of Maurice Watson Jr., and Marcus Foster at the 1 & 2. Watson Jr., has mastered the ability to dive into the trees and kick out to find potential shooters, as well as a deft touch around the rim. Though not a prolific shooter from beyond the arc (30% from three in 2015-16), Watson can cash in when needed. Foster brings a whole new dimension to this team, with an accurate three point shot and an ability to punish the peons who lay before him on his way to the rim. According to Coach McDermott, his defense has improved greatly, and his one-on-one iso game will make the best defenders crumble. Put the two of them together and an opposing coach’s defensive gameplan will become next to impossible to execute.

The Depth

At every position the Bluejays are at least 2-deep. Here’s a nice list to look at:

1 - Watson Jr., Mintz, Clement

2 - Foster, Zierden, Scurry

3 - Thomas, Paras

4 - Huff, Harrell, Hegner

5 - Patton, Hanson, Krampelj

There’s a lot of talent simmering on the bench, ready to take the stage at any given moment. Ronnie Harrell Jr., may be the most talented player that’ll start the season on the bench, as his work ethic and rebounding ability will be an asset. It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets a large majority of the ‘4’ minutes, with his athleticism carrying great importance. Davion Mintz will likely take the helm at ‘1’ next year and the 6’3 PG has a lot of talent to offer as a backup. Kobe Paras is a tweener at 3 & 4, but his ability to get to the rim and shoot will surprise a lot of folks. Zach Hanson went through knee surgery during the offseason, so his transition into eating bigger minutes will be taken over by Martin Krampelj until his recovery is complete.

The Schedule

The Jays feature a pretty simplistic non-conference slate that can be escaped with two or less losses. There’s way too much talent this year to forgive a trap game loss to an inferior opponent, but we’ll cross that bridge when we’re able to see it. The games against Wisconsin, Buffalo, (probably) NC State, and Arizona State will give us a great example of this team’s full potential when the BIG EAST slate rolls in.

Reasons for Cynicism

Defense?

As was stated earlier, the defensive woes that have plagued Coach McDermott’s tenure at Creighton have been a startling reminder that, regardless of how potent your offense is, a team must be able to keep their opponent’s score lower than theirs to win. I know that sounds silly, but given the relative ease in which teams could score on the Bluejays last year led to a striking reality where close wins turned into close losses. The good news: since practice began, Creighton has devoted a great deal of time to adopt a pressure packed defense - one that will boost their offense to great heights.

A Volatile BIG EAST

Villanova was able to steam roll through the BIG EAST last season, but with the losses of Dear Captain Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, the conference is pretty much up for grabs. A lot of sports writers have chalked ‘Nova and Xavier into the 1 & 2 slots and have left the rest of the field wide open. With a lot of teams beginning to come of age it’ll be interesting to see how scrappy the level of competition will be, and whether Creighton has the horses to keep up their gameday tempo all season long. In a half court affair with a team like Seton Hall, whose success relies upon a thumping emotion, the Jays may have their hands full and their pockets picked.

Perception v Reality

If the season shakes out as it should on paper, this team has an opportunity to remind national writers everywhere that the term ‘mid-major’ need not apply; and I know you’re probably sick of me writing about it, but if the team falls short, if the team cannot capitalize on the burgeoning talent laced within it, then the moniker will continue to apply. Perhaps that’s a weight that’s conjured solely in the mind, but it’s a weight that exists nonetheless. If this team whips its way into the top-10 there will be so much pressure for them to succeed that it may create a crushing collapse if they are unable to continue their previously garnered success. Mentally, we’ll see what this team is made of.

Best Case Scenario

A Sweet-16 appearance. A national following grabs their popcorn and allows FS1 to explode ratings-wise every Saturday and Wednesday from January to March. The team is universally lauded for their lightning fast play; Maurice Watson Jr. breaks a litany of assist records and the team averages 80+ possessions a game, cashing in on 60% of them. Justin Patton is a lottery pick. Isaiah Zierden stays healthy all season long and lights up the NCAA Tournament.

Worst Case Scenario

Something doesn’t click. The defensive woes continue and the offense has trouble generating momentum; Tom Crean and Julian Assange team up and steal McDermott’s playbook and leak it to the rest of the league. Donald Trump becomes presi- oh wait. The team falls flat against Wisconsin, drops games to their MACtion foes, stumbles into BIG EAST play and goes .500. Heads to the NIT again where they lose in the first round to Nebraska.

Prediction

Creighton drops two in the non-conference; something that one can chalk up to inexperience. Win the Paradise Jam. Beat Villanova at home, lose on the road. Lose to Xavier at the Cintas. Drops a game to Georgetown and Providence or something. Go into MSG as the two seed, win the damn thing, head into the NCAA Tournament as a 3-seed. Make it to the Sweet-16.

Record: 25-6 (14-4 BIG EAST)

Most Outstanding Player: Maurice Watson Jr.

Most Surprising Player: Ronnie Harrell Jr.