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Creighton Bluejays 2017-18 Season Preview

A lot of loss, some gain, and a heady mix of uncertainty.

2016/2017 Review

25-10 (10-8 in conference)

The Good Stuff

  • Started the season 13-0 before falling to Villanova on New Year’s Eve
  • Made it to the BIG EAST Championship game before losing to Villanova
  • Spent 8 weeks ranked in the top-10
  • Achieved a trip to the ‘Big Dance’ for the 20th time in school history
  • Justin Patton was a lottery pick
  • Everything was incredible until January 16th, 2017

The Bad Stuff

  • Everything went to heck after January 16th/20th, 2017
  • The 18-1 start was followed by a 7-8 slide after star point guard Maurice Watson Jr., went down with a season-ending ACL tear
  • Lingering injuries plagued TOBY! Hegner and Cole Huff
  • Blowout loss (71-51) to a 2-6 (in conference) Georgetown team in front of an empty arena
  • Got walloped by Rhode Island (84-72) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament

Style of Play

The Bluejays enjoy a fast paced offense, averaging around 15 seconds per offensive possession, putting them in the top 10 of quickest offenses in the country. In order to win with this style they’d need to score often, right? That’s exactly what they do! Last season they had an eFG% of 57.6%, good for third in the nation. 32% of their scoring came from beyond the arc while 54% came from within it.

Greg McDermott hangs his hat on his free flowing offense, relying on a play to be called and set in motion before the offense even passes half court. This allows playmakers to get into a position to score before the defense can come set, with off-ball role players setting screens to ensure an open shot. Typically the team is unselfish, utilizing an extra pass to get a higher percentage shot, which can be dizzying to watch considering their average time of possession. It’s more of a controlled chaos than anything else. The half court offense is predicated upon constant movement in the post, with the frontcourt setting up a pick and roll or a pick and pop while the wings break free for a kick out. That’s an oversimplification, but here’s a visual example:

That’s one helluva way to beat the zone.

On the defensive side, the squad relies on man-to-man defense at pretty much all times. With the personnel they have this year they’ll typically put their ‘3’ guard (Khyri Thomas) on the opponent’s best player and let the opponent rely on someone else for a bulk of their production. This is a philosophy that’s passable until you run into a Josh Hart/Jalen Brunson combination.

I’ve been a critic of McDermott’s defenses in years past, but if you apply a Khyri Thomas to the affected area then I can’t criticize too much. As they say, “A Khyri Thomas a day will keep an opposing offense at bay.”

Returning Players

* bold* denotes potential starters

*all statistics are for 2016-17, unless noted otherwise

** - Ineligible for 2017-18 season

G Khyri Thomas* - Junior - 6’3 210lbs - Omaha, NE 35GP/31.2MPG 12.3PPG/5.8RPG/50% FG

G Marcus Foster* - Senior - 6’3 205lbs - Wichita Falls, TX 35GP/30.9MPG 18.2PPG/2.1APG/46.1% FG

C/F Martin Krampelj* - RS Sophomore - 6’9 225lbs - Grosuplje, Slovenia 29GP/5.9MPG 2.8PPG/2.5RPG/52% FG

F Toby Hegner* - Senior - 6’10 240lbs - Berlin, WI 35GP/16.7MPG 5.0PPG/3.4RPG/46.8% FG

PG Davion Mintz* - Sophomore - 6’3 180lbs - Charlotte, NC 3.3PPG/1.8APG/38% FG

F Ronnie Harrell Jr. - Junior - 6’7 195lbs - Denver, CO 26GP/7.3MPG 2.6PPG/1.9RPG/48% FG

G Tyler Clement - Senior - 6’2 185lbs - Shawnee, KS 30GP/8.8MPG 1.5PPG/1.2APG/48% FG

*PG Kaleb Joseph - Junior - 6’3 180lbs - Nashua, NH / Syracuse (15/16) 19GP/6MPG .8PPG/.6APG/18% FG

G Jordan Scurry - Sophomore - 6’2 205lbs - Dedham, MA 1.5PPG/40% 3P FG/50% FG

Departed Players

PG Maurice Watson Jr. - No eligibility

C Justin Patton - NBA / Minnesota Timberwolves

F Cole Huff - Graduation

F/C Zach Hanson - Graduation

G Isaiah Zierden - Graduation

G Kobe Paras - Transfer

New Additions

F/C Manny Suarez - Senior - 6’10 250lbs - Cliffside Park, N.J (Adelphi) 30GP/24.6MPG 16.9PPG/8.6RPG/55% FG

**G/F Damien Jefferson - Sophomore - 6’5 195lbs - East Chicago, IN (New Mexico) 29GP/15.1MPG 5.3PPG/2.3RPG/43% FG

G Ty-Shon Alexander - Freshman - 6’4 195lbs - Charlotte, NC (Senior year - Oak Hill) 13.8PPG/3.3RPG/2.6APG

G Mitchell Ballock - Freshman - 6’5 205lbs - Eudora, KS (Senior year - Eudora HS) 25.4PPG/8.6RPG/4.1APG

C Jacob Epperson - Freshman - 6’11 210lbs - Melbourne, Australia (Senior year - La Lumiere) 8PPG/8RPG

Reasons For Optimism

Wings!

It’s no secret that the Bluejays are blessed to have two of the most potent pairs of players in all of the land in Khyri Thomas and Marcus Foster. I mean, it might be a secret if you’re currently living in a cave or somewhere that doesn’t have internet access, or if you don’t pay attention to college basketball, or if you’re illiterate, or if you’ve blacked out all coverage of BIG EAST basketball and are part of a sports media empire called ESPN, or if you were told that basketball is a game played, officiated, and coached by demons and that you’ll go to hell if you dare see it or speak of it, or if you have a different opinion on the subject matter.

Khyri Thomas might be the best two-way player that we’ve seen since Kahwi Leonard, with an innate ability to rebound, score, defend, pass, and acquire basketballs from an offensive player’s possession then promptly dunk it through the rim. He can shoot threes, lead a team of misfits, and parallel park better than anyone on this blue marble of a planet.

Marcus Foster possesses a hearty mix of power and finesse, a player who can jab-step his way into five or six threes a game or drive and score on the best defenders. His pure scoring abilities puts him directly into the category of Bluejay greats. His game winner against Xavier in the BIG EAST semi-final game will live on for eternity. Now, with his legendary status cemented, he’ll attempt to impress the masses by turning his talents up another couple of notches, knowing full well that his professional career rests within the heart of this season.

The two will drive the Bluejay offense. If they can produce at a consistent clip (17-25PPG) they’ll have an opportunity to take the Jays into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year.

An Opportunity To Learn

The back court got two stellar additions on the recruiting trail in the past couple of years with guard Mitchell Ballock and Ty-Shon Alexander. Ballock, a sensational talent from Eudora, Kansas, and Alexander, a solid player from a great Oak Hill squad, will bring a bit of depth and promise to the court every night.

Both bring a wealth of basketball intelligence and experience with them onto the team, but Ballock has shown his ability to contribute immediately. He’s got a great shooting stroke, is a prolific three point shooter, players stellar defense, and has a great understanding of the demands of McDermott’s offense. He can also do things like this:

That, as Creighton radio play by play man John Bishop stated, was a #WraggeBomb, though a #BallockBomb sounds pretty excellent as well.

Alexander has been rumored to potentially slot in at the ‘1’ as the season wears on; a testament to the potential he’s going to bring to this team and the potential Coach Mac sees in him. He has excellent court vision, plays stingy defense, and has the height to be a problematic ‘1’ - if the Jays go in that direction (he played PG in high school before joining up with Oak Hill). He’s fast, agile, and has some bounce that can offer highlights like this:

The two are the future of Creighton basketball in the back court. When they’re on the court, they’ll be gaining valuable experience, an exciting venture for basketball fans everywhere.

Home Court Heroes

Creighton plays a non-conference slate that features UCLA, Gonzaga, Northwestern, and Baylor or Wisconsin. Those are the headliners, and they’re all on the road, or at least on a neutral court. The remainder of their out-of-conference schedule will take place at the CenturyLink Center Omaha. The average KenPom rankings of those final eight games?

219.

The best opponent, ranking-wise, is Yale at #84. The worst is #326 in the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.

Though it may leave some fans wanting more, it gives the Jays an opportunity to grow the aforementioned young players, with their progress occurring right in front of the fans’ eyes.

Reasons for Cynicism

There’s No Point

When Watson went down with the ACL injury and the stumble into the tournament commenced, it became clear that Creighton had no viable option at point guard. Davion Mintz and Tyler Clement split time, yet both were relatively ineffective at coming reasonably close to replicating Watson’s success.

With the offense sputtering at times, struggling to find a balance, the season ended with the ultra-versatile Ronnie Harrell Jr., playing a lion’s share of the point against Rhode Island.

Fans clamored for answers. They tried to understand how McDermott couldn’t have a ready and waiting back up to Watson’s role. It’s an understandable gripe, yet adjusting mid season when the heart of the team becomes absent is a far more complex issue that’d require more miracle than logic to solve. The season ended with a disappointing ‘thud,’ and thus an offseason began anew.

Kaleb Joseph, the transfer from Syracuse, was seemingly the heir apparent to the throne. He’d been spoken about by Bluejay fans as the savior that they needed in order to have success this season.

Instead, the New Hampshire native tweaked his hamstring late in fall camp and was limited in the first official practice of the year. The injury continued to bother him throughout the preseason and when the scrimmage against Minnesota came about, he was nowhere to be seen.

Davion Mintz, the seemingly second-best option on the roster, had three turnovers and three assists in 18 minutes of the aforementioned secret scrimmage. Ronnie Harrell had just as many turnovers and one less assist. Tyler Clement played 9 minutes and his only stat was a personal foul. The rumors of Ty-Shon Alexander or Mitchell Ballock getting run at the ‘1’ at practice swirled. Uncertainty ruled.

Davion Mintz started against Omaha. Kaleb Joseph started against UNC-Pembroke. They split nearly equal time in both (UNO - Mintz 12 / Joseph 9|UNC-P - Mintz & Joseph 12) yet neither put up amazing stats, as they both acquired 4 assists each in the two games combined.

If the point guard pony show continues on throughout the season it’s going to be difficult to see the offense run to its maximum potential.

Feeling Low

What Zach Hanson and Justin Patton left behind as they began their respective careers was a pretty glaring hole in the middle for the Jays. It’s hard to fill the shoes of a NBA lottery pick, but the Jays have some options to slot over.

Martin Krampelj enjoyed a redshirt season in his inaugural year on campus with the intent on gaining some weight and gaining an opportunity to adjust to American style basketball. He got some run last season, playing in 29 games as Patton’s secondary back-up. He’s been tabbed as the heir apparent to Patton, solely in position, and with his observed ability to hit threes and run the court, he’ll fit right into McDermott’s system.

Through the two exhibition games he’s left a lot to be desired. In the game against Omaha he fouled out in 16 minutes with five points and five rebounds. In the game against Pembroke he committed four turnovers in the first seven minutes, finished the game with five total in 25 minutes of action, yet had some redemption with 8 rebounds and three assists. If he can limit his turnovers and continue with a good rebounding margin he should be fine, yet if he can’t the Jays will have a centerpiece with loose cannon hands made of lead.

True freshman Jacob Epperson came to campus in similar shape as Patton when he first arrived: slim, a little clumsy, and in need of a redshirt season to gain weight. The difference from Patton’s situation is that Creighton had two somewhat proven players slotted ahead of him in Geoffrey Groselle and Zach Hanson. Thus, due to a lack of depth, Epperson will likely get some burn in his true freshman year, likely unprepared for the task at hand.

Manny Suarez appears to be a blessing in disguise. With a body built like Zach Hanson but the innate ability to score when given an opportunity like Groselle in his senior season, Suarez came in without a lot of fanfare but has absolutely dazzled in the preseason. Here’s a tweet to prove my point:

Dubbed “Mad Dog Manny” by FakeBlueCrew, this former D-II grad transfer might be the golden goose to keep the center slot producing in big ways. Though he got a little banged up in the finishing moments of the Pembroke affair, it appears to be minor, and his presence shall grace the floor many a time.

The final option at center is a callback to the Altman days, with true ‘4’ TOBY! Hegner sliding over into the ‘5’ spot, similar to what Dane Watts had to endure his senior season. If TOBY! is asked to take a lion’s share of the minutes under the basket, his 3-point efficacy will wane, and his overall impact as a player will do so as well.

Thus, much like the drama surrounding which point guard will receive the proverbial rose, the center slot is sort of up for grabs. For now, it’s all Martin’s. In the future it might be Manny’s. Who knows, it could be Mepperson’s!

A Loaded BIG EAST

If these issues, stated above, don’t have a solution by the time conference play starts then the Jays are going to have to deal with a stacked conference with 7 teams vying for a top spot in the conference. Uncertainty breeds panic under pressure, and when you’ve got Angel Delgado or Jalen Brunson or Trevon Bluiett or Kamar Baldwin or Kyron Cartwright awaiting your arrival then you’ve got to be on the top of your game.

The consensus among coaches was Creighton finishing in the middle of the pack, weighed heavily by the elite status garnered by Thomas and Foster. If either one has an off night and the gameplan needs to shift to another player not named Ronnie Harrell then the Jays may be in for a rude awakening.

KenPom has the Jays at 9-9 in conference, which seems to be a pretty good barometer of what their baseline potential is, in the same vein as the preseason poll picking them 5th. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty fragile line to toe this season.

Best Case Scenario

Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas are able to lead this team to new heights, both on and off the court. Khyri’s leadership lights a fire in Kaleb Joseph and he turns out to be a scoring threat as well as a fantastic point guard. Jays win the Hall of Fame Classic with back to back fantastic finishes. Mitchell Ballock and Ty-Shon Alexander become household names, giving the Jays tons of depth off the bench, scoring in droves, while becoming fan favorites. Martin Krampelj and Manny Suarez become a potent one-two punch and bully the BIG EAST down low. TOBY! gets a buzzer beating tip-dunk against Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Jays finish in the vaunted top 3 in the conference, make it to the championship game again, and finally get to the Sweet 16.

Worst Case Scenario

The point guard experiment never pans out, leaving Coach McDermott to tab Ty-Shon Alexander as his permanent point guard, throwing the kid into the fire. Marcus and Khyri have consistently have bad nights on the same night, giving the Jays no other high scoring option. Ballock plays just alright. Martin Krampelj fails to shore up his turnover woes, Manny Suarez struggles to keep pace against major D-1 competition, and Epperson never sees the floor but doesn’t redshirt. Jays fall to the bottom three of the conference and lost to DePaul after Max Strus scores 55 on them in Chicago. They lose in the first round of the BIG EAST Tournament Presented by Jeep and fail to make the NIT. They lose to Nebraska.

Prediction

Jays get a win in the Hall of Fame Classic, win out the rest of the non-conference slate, and have a pretty good idea of who’s starting each night. Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas become the toast of the BIG EAST, Martin Krampelj does a solid and serviceable job at center, and Mitchell Ballock becomes a 2nd-Team ALL BIG EAST player. Jays win a game in the BIG EAST Tournament, just enough to push them from the bubble and into NCAA Tournament. They win the first one and get matched up with an impossibly tough 1-seed, where they lose, falling just short of the Sweet 16.

Record: 20-10, 10-8 in conference

Most Outstanding Player: Khyri Thomas

Most Surprising Player: Mitchell Ballock