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Isaiah Zierden is the Proverbial Phoenix of the BIG EAST

Fall and rise again.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Zierden.

Say it. Put heavy enunciation on the ‘Z.’ Let his name roll off your tongue and echo into the abyss.

Isaiah. Zierden.

Remember the representative of Creighton University. Remember his overwhelming ability to play lock down defense against the BIG EAST’s best guards. Remember him for his 3-point abilities. Most of all, remember him as the leader of the Creighton Bluejays for his entire tenure on the floor.

He’s been around for a while. He was around for the last Valley championship and ushered in the new era of sports in the BIG EAST. He represents a bygone era of Creighton basketball that was dominated by players who utilized off ball screens to get open for jump shots from beyond the arc - an era that has been quietly swept into oblivion as the off-ball screens are set for high flying dunk masters.

Zierden represents everything good about college basketball. He wasn’t a highly touted recruit - he was courted by Manhattan, Jacksonville, Wofford, and George Mason - but he was one of the best sharpshooters in high school basketball. He flew under the radar, but landed softly on both feet at Creighton.

After sitting out with a redshirt, Zierden joined a team at their peak. In his inaugural year he racked up boatloads of assists while seldom turning the ball over. He was the perfect compliment in the final year of the McBucket era with his shooting ability and ability to run up and down the floor. He was versatile, a crowd favorite, the son of a NBA assistant coach.

Then, his knee crumbled. The madness of March had taken its first victim as Zierden dislocated his kneecap on a March 1st game against Xavier. The depth and sure handed abilities he offered suddenly disappeared, and the Bluejays went on to lose in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Zierden soldiered on and came into the following season prepared to do battle. The hearty 6’3 guard from Minnesnowta scoffed at the notion that he wouldn’t be able to play. Though his defense needed some fine tuning, and he did seem a step slower, Zierden stepped up and became a central cog to the Bluejay offense, shooting 40% from three and racking up a 29/13 AST/TO ratio.

Unfortunately, the knee eating monster of college basketball reared its ugly head yet again. Zierden, while playing at Hinkle Fieldhouse against Butler, went down with a partially torn MCL as well as re-injuring his right kneecap. This ended Zierden’s sophomore season and sent him to DC to get surgery.

When you’re afflicted with a detriment to perform a hobby or a duty repeatedly, it can be difficult to come back and start with a fresh perspective. I imagine myself writing 30 articles and then suddenly being afflicted with Hanson’s disease (stone hands) where I’d be unable to write anything for months. Every day, while I rehab my stone hands, I’d be thinking of writing again someday, lusting for and craving for the moment that my fingers could move again so I could pound them on a keyboard and create #content.

Eventually, my Hanson’s disease is seemingly cured, and I’m able to write again. Flying and flowing with my thoughts and ideas, filling a blank screen with words, creating bizarre stories for you to read again, I finally get to that 29th article and feel my hands beginning to harden. I fill with worry, and as I finish my 30th article, my hands seize as the disease has returned.

“No. Not again,” I’d think, “my hands are like stones - again! How will I get through this tough time? I should find a new hobby! Maybe make bar soap or whittle figurines of my favorite 17th century authors. My hands... my worthless, poor, stone hands.”

At that point I’d probably give up writing because I’m a giant baby and can’t deal with adversity. I’m sure you’re nodding your head right now and agreeing, thinking to yourself, “Yeah I’m a big baby too, there’s no way I’d go through with that again.”

And yet...

Two season ending knee injuries. One surgery. No chance he’ll play basketball again.

Heh, dream on.

As the 2015-16 season approached, Isaiah Zierden remained on the roster. Questions swirled before the season began on whether or not he’d play a significant part in the lineup. Zierden skipped the trip overseas to Italy. He didn’t participate in the local media day practice.

Then, he was suited for the exhibition game against Upper Iowa. He proceeded to play 21 minutes and looked agile, bouncy, anew. His shooting stroke was still there - going 3-for-8 from downtown and collecting a steal. It was like watching a vintage version of him, except with a little more beard and a few extra lbs. He’d note later on in the season that he still played with a bit of worry that any misstep, any slip on the court, any collision with another player, could effectively end his season again.

He played through the worry. He played through the pain. He simply dominated. Throughout the season he collected his career high in steals (44), threes (70-182, 40%), and most importantly, minutes played (982 - 32 MPG). His defense intensified, his vocal leadership on the court apparent every time down, his ability to get open and space the floor was proof that he hadn’t lost the intangibles he brought his freshman year. It was like getting into a time machine and bringing the pre-injury Zierden back.

There was the game against DePaul in Rosemont - a game that was attended by his father thanks to the All-Star break - where Zierden went absolutely bonkers.

Previous to this matchup, Zierden logged 40 minutes against Providence, but only shot 2-7 from the field. He had one of those iron-man moments, occasionally switching onto the almighty Kris Dunn when Khyri Thomas needed a breather, nabbing a steal and causing havoc on the defensive side. Though it was masterful, the low scoring affair required someone to take an extra step forward to collect some momentum, and unfortunately that opportunity passed by Zierden.

Perhaps Zierden understood this going into the following game against DePaul. Perhaps it was the chance to play in front of his dad. Perhaps it was to provide heat to the ~4,000 in attendance. Regardless of the reasons, Zierden played the game of his career on a frigid January day in Rosemont.

The game started as haphazardly as a game can start for the Bluejays as they dug themselves into a 11-0 hole in the first four minutes of play. It appeared that the Providence hangover was real; the Jays looked devoid of energy and lacked any urgency to play defense. The first Bluejay points of the game came on a pair of free throws by Zach Hanson at the 15:31 mark, cutting the deficit to nine measly points. At the 13:24 mark Zierden sunk his first three of the day, continuing to slice into DePaul’s 16-7 lead. A few minutes later he hit another three to bring the Jays within five.

Zierden was fouled on a three point shot with 3:41 to play in the first half. He sunk all three free throws, and just like that the Bluejays had a four point lead.

He added five more points to that in the next minute alone. The lead swelled to nine and Zierden finished with 14 points in one half. Not bad.

Khyri Thomas and Zach Hanson traded baskets at the rim to start the second half. The reason this was done, presumably, was to lull DePaul’s perimeter defense to sleep, to force them to draw in, because Zierden proceeded to dump in back-to-back-to-back three pointers.

His next three put them up by 11.

What one witnessed on that January day was a player defying the hot hand fallacy. I believe everyone at the All State arena that day could feel the heat permeating off the junior guard’s hands. It was an absolute joy to watch. It didn’t matter what sort of defense Dave Leitao threw out there; nothing was stopping the Z-man.

When it was all said and done, Zierden amassed a team high 31 points on 9-12 shooting - 8-11 from deep - while simultaneously playing a high pressure defense and accumulating three steals. Perhaps it wasn’t such a far fetched offensive performance given Zierden’s abilities, but it was a showcase for everything we’d missed out on in the two years prior.

Yet with this immaculate bounce back year, avoiding the knee eating monster of the basketball Gods, he was still unable to play an entire season of college basketball. In the second to last home game against Marquette, Zierden managed to deflect a pass off his shoulder, which tore a ligament.

I mentioned before that Zierden was the ironman of the squad - and that rang true when the team travelled to Providence to play the Friars after injuring his shoulder - a game that featured Zierden playing 34 minutes and locking on Dunn from time to time.

Unfortunately, Zierden was forced to sit out in the season finale against Xavier. In the first round game against Seton Hall, it was apparent that he was hampered by the injury and moving at 50% of his usual clip. That matchup against the Pirates would be his last action on the court for the year, as he sat out the entire NIT.

When it was all said and done, Zierden had started and played in 31 games his junior season. When the final whistle blew he was able to get his shoulder surgically repaired.

So, what’s to expect from Isaiah Zierden in the upcoming season?

Anything. Everything. For what he’s sacrificed to be on the court, both mentally and physically, he deserves all the minutes, all the open jumpers, all the steals and assists that he can manage. Whether he plays one minute or 1,000 you can rest assured that his leadership will resonate with the entire Bluejay faithful.