After a a smooth transition to the Big East, where the Doug McDermott-led Bluejays finished second in the conference in the 2013-14 season (27-8 overall, 14-4 in the Big East), last season was sort of a wake-up call for Creighton.
Without McDermott (and not to mention no Ethan Wragge, Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat), the elder McDermott (Greg) found the sledding much tougher last season. The Bluejays finished in a tie for last place in the Big East East with a 14-19 record (4-14 in the conference).
As the Bluejays enter the 2015-16 season they do so as one of the wild cards of the conference. Although they lose an additional five players (Austin Chatman, Devin Brooks, Ricky Kreklow, Avery Dingman and Will Artino) who got decent minutes last season, Creighton does have a promising crop of newcomers and returnees who offer some hope.
Between experienced transfers in Boston University’s Maurice “Mo” Watson and Nevada’s Cole Huff, along with some intriguing freshmen (Khyri Thomas, Martin Krampelj and four-star recruit Justin Patton), the cupboard is certainly not bare in Omaha.
When you look at the Big East, four teams appear to stand apart from the others in Villanova, Georgetown, Butler and Xavier. And besides a St. John’s team that returns basically nobody, the middle of the conference seemingly seems up for grabs. So, if things all come together for Creighton, it can get back in the hunt in a hurry.
At Big East media day, the coaches voted the Bluejays as the No. 9 team in the Big East pre-season poll. Coach McDermott noted that based on the perception of where Creighton finished last season and what it’s bringing back, he was not surprised where the team was picked.
“So much of pre-season polls is, ‘What did you do last year and who do you return’,” McDermott said. “We didn’t do very good last year and we don’t return many (players). So, we’re picked probably about where we should be. But, I don’t think we feel that in our locker room. I think we feel that we’re making good strides and we have a chance to have a very good season.”
While their record didn’t indicate it last season, the Bluejays played many teams tough and were in many games until the bitter end. After all, Creighton did lose eight of their Big East contests by less than five points.
“If I’m not mistaken I think we lost seven Big East games that we led in the last minute,” said McDermott. “I think what that teaches you is the value of one possession. Now when they hear it out of my mouth in practice, they understand it’s not just coach speak. This happened to us on several occasions last year, where one possession could have made the difference in a win or a loss. (As a result), We’ve been a little sharper (in practice). Our focus and approach has been a little bit better.”
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For McDermott it’s all about blending in the newcomers with the veterans of the program.
“I’m happy with the new guys,” McDermott said. “They’re progressing well. I think our trip to Italy this summer has been very valuable to them. Having said that, you know Geoff Grosselle (and) James Milliken our fifth year players; Cole Huff and Maurice Watson are very accomplished players at the schools that they transferred from. We’re going to have a dynamic in our lineup of some guys that are really experienced. And obviously, experience counts in our game.”
Again with a nice group of newcomers to lean on, there is a renewed optimism. However, one area of concern is scoring efficacy. Last season, the Bluejays ranked 9th in the Big East in scoring offense (67.3 points per game) and last in field-goal percentage (.420 percent), while shooting an uncharacteristically pedestrian .345 percent from three-point range (which ranked 8th in the Big East).
That’s where the addition of Watson and Huff will be vital.
Huff is a rangy, bouncy forward who could get up and down the court with ease. The 6’8 combo forward from Nevada is the epitome of smooth, and is coming off an exhibition trip to Italy where he averaged a team-high 14.3 points. Huff should be an effective scorer right off the bat.
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Watson, meanwhile, averaged 13.3 points, 7.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game in his last season with Boston. He will effectively replace Chatman at point guard. So far, it seems that Watson is off to a great start. On Creighton’s trip to Italy, he averaged 10.3 points, while accumulating 20 assists in three games.
Watson carries a calm and confident demeanor. He is a determined young man who is eager to get back on the court. Given that he had to sit out all of last season, he is amped to get the season started.
“I’m definitely excited to get out there,” Watson said. “I’m just trying to get used to the pace and how hard you have to play. Coach can be very demanding of you and being average is not an option. You have to come every day with the same attitude and same focus.”
Watson discussed the time he had to sit and adjust to life without playing basketball.
“This transition has been more off the court for me,” Watson added. “I’ve grown up a lot in that (regard).”
Again, the middle of the conference is up for grabs and if it all comes together for these Bluejays, they could conceivably challenge once again for an NCAA Tournament bid. Then again, if Creighton starts off sluggish and doesn’t mesh well together, it could be looking at another season at the bottom of the standings.
For the Bluejays it will all come down to how the newcomers blend in with the holdovers, and if Creighton can improve on its aforementioned scoring deficiency. As such, they will be one of the Big East’s bigger wild cards.
Creighton’s season can go in a lot of different directions.