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2018-19 Big East nonconference schedule analysis: Creighton Bluejays

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Without Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, how well will the Creighton Bluejays do to start the season?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Creighton vs Kansas State Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Creighton Bluejays enjoyed a nice 11-2 record in non-conference play, and went on to finish 21-12 overall.

The Bluejays had a series of heartbreaks to finish the 2017-18 season, starting with a close loss to Marquette in the regular season finale, followed by a tough overtime loss to Providence in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals. Then, in the NCAA Tournament, they were bounced out of the opening round.

However, with a new year, comes a fresh start--and a healthy Martin Krampelj. This year’s 13-game non-conference slate is highlighted by the Cayman Islands Classic, a rematch with the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the CenturyLink Center, and a meeting with the Oklahoma Sooners. Here is a look at the teams they will face outside of Big East play.


Western Illinois (November 6)

The Bluejays will start off the 2018-19 campaign against the Western Illinois Leathernecks. The Leathernecks finished 12-16 last season, but really struggled in conference play. 11 of their losses came from Summit League opponents. On the bright side, those 12 victories were the most in a season in five years. These next couple of seasons can potentially be part of a positive upward trend for Western Illinois. The Leathernecks have a couple of promising young talents that contributed immediately as freshmen last season. Kobe Webster averaged a team-high 15.9 points per game in his first year playing college basketball. He provided a spark when it came to scoring, a much-needed one, since Western Illinois had struggled to score on a consistent basis throughout the year. According to KenPom, the Leathernecks were ranked 319th last season in offensive efficiency. Now a sophomore, Webster will look to take his play to an even higher level. He’ll have some help from his fellow classmate, Isaac Johnson, who had a great share of minutes last season as a freshman and will have a much more featured role in the system. There’s also 6-foot-11 center Brandon Gilbeck, who is a two-way enforcer down low. He averaged just over 10 points per game last season, while shooting 65.7 percent on the floor. On the other end of the court, he proved to be one of the best shot blockers in college basketball, with 2.6 rejections per game--good for top 30 in the country.

East Tennessee State (November 11)

It’s been quite the three-year stretch under East Tennessee State head coach Steve Forbes. Under his guidance, the Buccaneers have won at least 24 games in three-straight seasons for the first time since 1990-92. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament once during this window, doing so in 2017, and they’ll try to make it back this year. The key to the Buccaneers’ success is from their attention to detail in executing on defense. Over the last two seasons, they have been among the top teams in college basketball when it comes to forcing turnovers and blocking shots. After graduating three of their top scorers--Desonta Bradford, Jalan McCloud, and Devontavius Payne--the Buccaneers might have to pay even more attention on defense. According to KenPom, they created turnovers on 20.6 percent of opponent possessions and held them to an effective FG% of 47.1 (26th in NCAA). They played one Big East opponent last year, Xavier, and gave them quite the scare at the Cintas Center. They frustrated the Musketeers for a majority of the game, until Xavier staged a last-minute comeback to take the game. This isn’t a team to take lightly, but with all the roster turnover its experiencing, it might take some time for East Tennessee State to gel.

Ohio State (November 15)

Creighton is in the Gavitt Tipoff Games rotation once again, and it’ll host the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Bluejays are 2-1 so far in the annual series with the Big Ten Conference, losing their matchup to Indiana in the inaugural slate, but going on to win against Wisconsin and Northwestern in the following seasons since. They’ll see a familiar face in Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann, who was previously with the Butler Bulldogs for three seasons before joining the Buckeyes last year. Much like he did with Butler, Holtmann has brought new life to Ohio State. Although he’s only completed one college basketball season, it was a great first impression, guiding the Buckeyes to a 25-9 finish--their best record in five years. He won’t have the services of leading scorer and rebounder Keita Bates-Diop (drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves), nor will he have the recently graduated Jae’Sean Tate, a relentless finisher. However, he does bring back C.J. Jackson, who averaged 12.6 points and shot 37.9 percent from the beyond the arc, and Kaleb Wesson, who enjoyed a solid freshman season at forward. He also brings in a recruiting class headlined by four-star prospects Luther Muhammad (Jersey City, N.J./Hudson Catholic) and Jaedon LeDee (Houston, Texas/Kinkaid School).

Cayman Islands Classic — George Town, Grand Cayman

Boise State (November 19)

This year’s Boise State team will look a lot different than the previous one. For starters, the Broncos will no longer have the all-everything player in Chandler Hutchison, who has since graduated and moved onto the NBA. Hutchison became the highest-drafted player ever in Boise State history, when he was the first-ever Bronco to be selected in the first round. The Chicago Bulls picked the 6-foot-7 wing with the 22nd overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Hutchison was one of the highest-used players in the NCAA last season, accounting for 33.0 percent of possessions and taking just over 30 percent of Boise State’s shots. With Hutchison gone, expect the Broncos to take a step back from their 23-7 form. Justinian Jessup will be one of their top players to watch. Jessup is Boise State’s top returning scorer. He’s one of the top three-point shooters in college basketball, knocking down 45.7 percent of his takes from long range en route to an 11.6 points per game season. Now a junior, this season should be a big step up for him, as he takes a featured role.

St. Bonaventure OR Georgia State (November 20)

St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies are coming off of their winningest season ever. St. Bonaventure completed its 2017-18 campaign with 26 victories, the most ever in program history. Although it didn’t go deep in the NCAA Tournament, St. Bonaventure got to enjoy an upset over UCLA. Unfortunately for the Bonnies, they no longer have the services of Matt Mobley and current Atlanta Hawk, Jaylen Adams. Both Mobley and Adams averaged over 18 points per game last season, but Adams is a much bigger loss. He was one of the top point guards in the country and proved to be an impact player on both ends of the court. The Bonnies will look forward to the 2018-19 season, as they likely place the ball into Courtney Stockard and LaDarien Griffin’s hands. They are both tough rebounding wings that can score the ball as well. Stockard is the top returner, averaging 13.3 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds last season. As for Griffin, he’s only gotten better with each passing season, and now a senior, he’ll get more opportunities on the floor.

Georgia State: Last season, the Panthers made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Although their recent trip wasn’t an upset special like their last, the Panthers saw the emergence of one of their young players, D’Marcus Simonds, who was named the Sun Belt Player of the Year as a sophomore. A do-it-all point guard, Simonds took a big leap forward as a second-year player. He averaged 21.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.7 steals. If he can get his three-point shooting stroke to be more consistent, he’ll be a top player out of all the smaller conferences. He is the heart and soul of this Georgia State squad, and it will go as far as he goes.

Akron OR Clemson OR Georgia OR Illinois State (November 21)

Akron: Last season was a rough one for John Groce, who was making his head coaching debut at Akron. A promising start for the Zips soon sputtered into the wrong direction, as the Zips finished 14-18, breaking a 12-year streak of 20-win seasons. Akron struggled to find consistency on both ends of the court. According to KenPom, the Zips were ranked 234th in offensive efficiency and 270th in defensive efficiency. However, the Zips have a couple of reasons to be optimistic and that’s with junior Daniel Utomi and senior Jimond Ivey. After being redshirted and having a reserve role in his first full season back, Utomi burst onto the scene and became a go-to player for Akron. He is capable of scoring at all three levels and is also a solid rebounder. He averaged 16.7 points and 5.3 boards last year. As for Ivey, he’s a scrappy guard that excels at crashing the boards. He was Akron’s top rebounder, despite only being a 6-foot-5 guard.

Clemson: The Tigers were just a few baskets away from upsetting Kansas in last year’s Sweet 16. Fortunately for the Tigers, they are bringing back four of their top five scorers from last season. Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe might be the team’s top scorers, but overall, the Tigers love to use a team-ball approach, spreading the damage across a variety of players. It helps feed into their identity on the other end of the court, where they excelled as a team on defense. The Tigers were one of the top shot-blocking and interior defending teams around. Last season, they held opponents to shooting just 43.9 percent from inside the arc, and they blocked 13.3 percent of their opponents shots (23rd in Division I). According to KenPom, as a team, the Tigers were ranked seventh in defensive efficiency. With a lot of continuity from last season, expect more of the same.

Georgia: After taking a year off, Tom Crean is making his comeback, as he takes over as Georgia’s head coach. It is Crean’s first gig since his firing from Indiana in 2017, where he spent nine seasons. He takes over for Mark Fox, who compiled a 163-133 record during his time with the Bulldogs. The hiring of Crean gives Bulldog fans hope that he might be able to inject new life onto Georgia’s offense. The Bulldogs had mostly become a one-man show when it came to scoring, leaning on the talented Yante Maten for a majority of the scoring bulk. With Maten graduated and now an undrafted free agent with the Miami Heat, there’s some concern with what the Bulldogs are capable of doing. Outside of Maten, all other Bulldogs averaged fewer than 8.5 points per game. Only time will tell what Crean is able to do with this team.

Illinois State: If everything lines up, Creighton can possibly play an old Missouri Valley Conference foe. The Redbirds have owned their former MVC opponent, leading the all-time series, 41-30. The last time these two teams played each other, it was right before the Bluejays moved over to the Big East Conference. Illinois State downed Creighton back on Feb. 9, 2013, winning 75-72, breaking a six-game winning streak that the Bluejays had over the Redbirds. With only one senior on their team from last year, the Redbirds are virtually bringing back everyone else, including Milik Yarbrough, Phil Fayne, and Keyshawn Evans--seniors that averaged at least 15 points each last year.

Montana (November 28)

The stars might be aligning for the Montana Grizzlies to enjoy another solid season. Last year, the Grizzlies finished with a 26-8 record, which included Big Sky regular season and tournament titles, as well as their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in five years. Montana graduated only one rotational player from last season, Fabijan Krslovic. Everyone else is back, and a majority of Montana’s players have years of experience playing big minutes on the floor. Ahmaad Rorie led the way with a team-high 17.2 points per game last season. The former Oregon transfer has quickly risen to the forefront of the Grizzlies since he first arrived. He’s a fearless scorer that can get the job done at all three levels. Then there’s also Michael Oguine and Jamar Akoh, who also eclipsed double figures in scoring and are valued contributors. As experienced and loaded with veteran players that Montana might be, size might be an issue for them. Their tallest upperclassman is listed at 6-foot-8. While they seemed to remedy the situation with freshmen recruits and redshirted underclassmen, they might not be ready to go right away. Until then, expect a lot of small ball from Montana.

Gonzaga (December 1)

The second leg of the home-and-home series between the Bluejays and the Bulldogs comes to Omaha. Creighton will look to avenge a 91-74 loss from last year, in which Gonzaga was in control for a vast majority of the game. It won’t be easy, as the Bulldogs retain a number of key pieces from last year’s 32-5 squad. While they lose their leading scorer and rebounder in Johnathan Williams, the team-ball oriented approach of the Bulldogs should fill in the gaps. Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura are both back to lead the team and create a strong frontcourt punch. Both Tillie and Hachimura were expected to go to the draft and were very well reflected and perceived by NBA scouts. They will be back to lead a Bulldog squad that also includes fifth-year senior Josh Perkins and promising sophomore Zach Norvell Jr. They will be instrumental in maintaining a Gonzaga tradition: hard-nosed, diligent defense. According to KenPom, the Bulldogs have been ranked in the top 30 when it comes to defensive efficiency in each of the last six seasons. They’ve been a top 100 fixture since 2006.

Nebraska (December 8)

It’s not a Gavitt Tipoff Game, but Creighton will take on its in-state rival on the road. The Bluejays have dominated this rivalry in recent years, winning eight of the last nine meetings--including a seven-game win streak that has been done with a double-digit margin of victory. However, the overall historic series between the two is even at 22-22. This could be the year that Nebraska makes it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. Last season, the Cornhuskers were on the fringe with a 22-9 regular season record and a 13-5 showing in Big Ten play. Unfortunately for them, they got their bubble popped. Nebraska has all three of its top scorers back for their senior seasons. Leading scorer James Palmer Jr., former Georgetown player Isaac Copeland Jr., and two-way guard Glynn Watson Jr. Palmer had a nice 16-point game against Creighton last year and was pretty efficient on the floor (7-of-11 overall). However, it was the effort of Copeland that proved to be problematic for Creighton. Copeland who was familiar with the Bluejays led the way with a 20-point game in last year’s edition of the rivalry showdown. With Creighton having to replace some of its top weapons, could this be the year Nebraska catches its rival?

Green Bay (December 14)

Creighton takes a break in between two Power-5 conference teams with a game against Green Bay. The Phoenix will feature an old Big East friend in former Marquette player Sandy Cohen III. He played two seasons with the Golden Eagles, before deciding to transfer early in the college basketball season back in 2016. He had to sit out for the remainder of the year, but was able to rejoin the action in late December 2017. Cohen proved to make an immediate impact as a member of the starting five upon return, averaging 16.1 points over 22 games. He is the top returning scorer and will be a focal point for the Phoenix. Last year’s Green Bay squad finished 13-20 and was near the bottom in the NCAA when it came to rebounding, and with a team that doesn’t have a single player taller than 6-foot-8, that might be another glaring weakness to address.

Oklahoma (December 18)

Oklahoma and Creighton will tip off their home-and-home series this season. The first game will be played at Oklahoma this year, before going to Omaha in the 2019-20 season. This series might have come a year too late, as the Sooners no longer have the services of Trae Young and the ‘Jays bid farewell to top scorer Marcus Foster and two-way star Khyri Thomas. There are a lot of questions surrounding this team, now that Young is gone. Jordan Shepherd and Kameron McGusty, two guards that were expected to take on bigger roles, have transferred out of Oklahoma. While Lon Kruger is an established figure at Oklahoma, the picture isn’t so clear in regards to who will pick up the pieces left from all of the various departures. Senior guard Christian James and sophomore forward Brady Manek may have the answers. They are the top returning scorers and averaged at least 10 points per game apiece. James is primed to take the next step for his senior year, and Manek has flashed potential as a player that can develop into something special over the next couple of seasons.

Coe College (December 20)

Creighton takes on a Division III school as a nod to the past. Coe head coach Bryan Martin was instrumental in elevating North Dakota (which is where Greg McDermott landed his first gig as an assistant from 1989-94) to a Division I program. Prior to coaching at North Dakota, Martin coached at a few different community colleges in Iowa, which served as feeder programs and sent talented players to Iowa State and Northern Iowa--two colleges McDermott previously coached at before arriving at Creighton. Martin is in his seventh season at Coe College. Last year, the Kohawks finished 9-16 overall.

UMKC (December 27)

That’s University of Missouri--Kansas City for everyone looking for the proper, full name. Creighton prepares for Big East play with one last non-conference game against the Kangaroos, who finished with a not-so-great 10-22 record last season. Two of those wins came against non-Division I opponents. Last year, UMKC struggled offensively, finishing the year 295th in offensive efficiency (according to KenPom). It wasn’t too much better on defense, where it finished 246th. The Kangaroos couldn’t find consistency on either end of the court, and some of those issues might have stemmed from their lack of size. They had the sixth-shortest team in terms of average height, and this year, they only have two players standing taller than 6-foot-8. The other thing going against UMKC last season was its lack of experience, but now, with its young players back as veterans, maybe they can turn things around. Jordan Giles, Xavier Bishop, and Isaiah Ross were three of the Kangaroos’ top scorers from last season, averaging just over 10 points per game each. Can they build off of their sophomore campaigns?


Outlook

After a solid showing in last year’s non-conference schedule, this year might be a bit rocky. Creighton has a nice mix of games, and it will be an interesting time to see how the Bluejays deal with graduating Marcus Foster and the early departure of Khyri Thomas--two players that have been important to their success since they first arrived in Omaha. On the bright side, Martin Krampelj is back, and the Bluejays have a few other players that are looking to take a big step forward. While the Bluejays grow accustomed to not having Foster and Thomas around, there will be some setbacks, but they shouldn’t lose more than three or four non-conference games.