Creighton enters the 2016-’17 season with high expectations.
The Bluejays are just getting over their post-Doug McDermott hangover. They have not been back to the NCAA Tournament since appearing in the Big Dance the last three years of the McBuckets era.
That may be about to change.
Last season, the Bluejays were in contention for an NCAA bid but were undone by losing five out of their last six games – including a first-round loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament. However, this was after Creighton finished in a tie for last place in the Big East for the 2014-15 season. Appearing in the NIT represented major progress.
The heart and soul of Creighton’s resurgence last season was the play of Boston University transfer Maurice “Mo” Watson. The diminutive yet spunky point guard is tough as nails and is coming off a tremendous junior campaign with the Bluejays.
Watson averaged a team-high 14.1 points to go along with a league-high 6.4 assists per game last season, while being named to the All-Big East Second Team.
Watson’s decision making on the court puts him a cut above the rest. He did a great job of getting all his teammates involved last season, and now will be joined in the backcourt by a new and explosive scorer.
Enter Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster.
After sitting on the sidelines for a year, Foster is ready to be unleashed. He showed at Kansas State he can get hot at a moment’s notice. Foster is a highly athletic slasher with the ability to also knock down perimeter jumpers with ease.
Watson and Foster will feed off each other’s energy. They will create one of the country’s better backcourt duos.
Experienced guard play is always a good starting point for success, and Bluejays head coach Greg McDermott has that in spades. The play of Watson and Foster will go a long way in establishing Creighton as a team that can contend for a Big East title and make a deep run next March.
By no means, though, do Watson and Foster represent the full extent of this roster’s capabilities.
McDermott loves how this roster came to be and is excited about the depth he has heading into the season.
“Athletically, it is (a Big East roster),” McDermott told Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald.
“We’re longer, more athletic. If we get healthy, we’re going to be one of the deeper teams, where we can throw a lineup out there with pretty good size or a lineup that’s the Golden State model, quicker with a lot of guys who can shoot the basketball.
“It will be fun to play with that and see where it takes us.”
Also back for McDermott’s is senior sharpshooter Isaiah Zierden. He is one of the conference’s better shooters (he averaged 10.2 points on 38.5 percent shooting from three-point range) and can benefit from the looks he’ll get when teams key on Watson and Foster.
Then consider Cole Huff.
This is one of the more underrated forwards in the league. The wiry-strong and smooth forward can operate inside and out. Huff is coming off a junior campaign in which he averaged 11.3 points per game. He scored 35 points against Seton Hall in the first round of the Big East Tournament. He just has to show more consistency because sometimes he can disappear in games.
Down low McDermott has a couple of capable big men in Zach Hanson (6.8 points per game on 65.5 percent shooting from the field) and Toby Hegner (5.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game). They won’t be asked to do much but play within themselves and be complementary role players.
A lot of Creighton fans are excited about redshirt freshman Justin Patton, a former four-star recruit who possesses a solid blend of size and skill. With a year to bulk up and soak up McDermott’s system, Patton – who can drift outside, too – could become one of the Big East’s better freshmen.
His upside is limitless.
Former UCLA recruit Kobe Paras offers tremendous athleticism from the wing. He may need some time to develop, but he is dripping with pure talent.
In all, McDermott is bringing back seven players from his nine-man rotation last season. The Bluejays only lose Geoffrey Groselle and James Milliken from last season’s team. Between what Creighton has coming back and what it is bringing in, it has the roster construction to potentially do some major damage this season.
While the Bluejays are deep and experienced, their backcourt will be the driving force behind their success. Although McDermott had major success when his superstar son was around, he has never had the guard play he has entering this season. It’s the type of guard play that could lead to special things, as in a Sweet 16-type run. It’s a place Creighton has not been to since 1974.
The talent and variables are all clearly there for Creighton to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Once there, it’s impossible to deny the possibilities that exist with the backcourt and depth the Bluejays can throw at opponents.