For a team that did not make the NCAA Tournament last season, Creighton heads into the 2016-17 season with a different set of expectations.
As a team predicted by many – including here at Today’s U – to be a top-25 team–the Bluejays have hopes of ending a two-year drought of missing out on the Big Dance.
With a backcourt that features all-Big East First Team member Maurice Watson and Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster, as well as key playmakers at other positions and more depth overall, the Bluejays have the roster composition to do some damage this season.
Big East coaches agree, as they have tabbed Creighton to come in third place in the preseason coaches poll.
And it’s not like Creighton was chopped liver last season. The Bluejays won 25 games (nine in Big East action) and made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT. They were clearly in the mix for an NCAA bid last season before faltering late in Big East play.
Bluejays’ head coach Greg McDermott knows his team has great expectations and he is confident that his squad is motivated to make the next step.
“We’re extremely motivated to make that happen (getting back to NCAA Tournament),” McDermott told Today’s U at Big East media day.
After McDermott lost his superstar son Doug (as well as program stalwarts Ethan Wragge, Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat) in 2014, the program naturally took a step back. Creighton suffered in the first year AD (after Doug) en route to a last-place finish in the Big East (tied with Marquette) in the 2014-15 season.
Coach McDermott knew there would be a rocky transition period after his son departed the program and he is proud of the resolve the upperclassmen have shown.
“We knew there was going to be a period of transition when we lost that senior class three years ago,” McDermott said. “We knew there could be some growing pains. To these guys credit, we made sure it was just a short stay at the bottom and (now) we’ve put ourselves in a position (to make NCAA Tournament).”
The engine behind the Bluejays’ success will no doubt be Watson. The steady point guard is great at breaking down defenses and knows when to get his teammates involved.
As a senior, and a player that has previously played at the mid-major level (at Boston University) and now the Big East, Watson is a self-motivated player.
He has an undying hunger to finish his career with a bang.
“I don’t think I have ever been this hungry in my life,” said Watson.
Watson said his dedication to the game has changed.
“My hunger has allowed me to correct my behavior off the court,” Watson added. “I haven’t been drinking. I haven’t been going out. I want my body to be in the best shape ever.”
— Dan Stack (@StacDemon) October 11, 2016
Although the Bluejays have nice weapons outside of Watson in senior sharpshooter Isaiah Zierden, senior forward Cole Huff and newcomers like redshirt center Justin Patton and freshman wing Kobe Paras, it is the addition of Foster that has Creighton fans downright giddy.
Foster is an explosive and dynamic scorer who can score from anywhere on the court. He averaged double digits in scoring in both years at Kansas State (12.5 points in his last season in Manhattan) and is ready to do the same in Omaha.
Both McDermott and Watson are really excited about the impact Foster can have on the team.
“This is a guard’s game and you better have good guards if you want to be successful,” McDermott said about his talented backcourt. “Maurice obviously can control the game and create for his teammates. Marcus gives us another scorer and another person who can make plays at the end of the shot clock.”
“I really like our guard core,” McDermott added. “I think we have a lot of depth there with Khyri Thomas, Isaiah Zierden, Ronnie Harrell and Kobe Paras. I like the group we have. We just got to continue to work and continue to get better.”
Watson first talked about what Foster is like off the court and how Foster’s personality has forged better team chemistry.
“Off the court, he brings so much,” Watson said about Foster’s impact. “He’s always joking, he’s fun. He’s outgoing but he’s also relaxed. He knows how to be there for you. I open up to him because he’s my best friend.”
On the court, Watson can’t wait to join forces with Foster.
“He brings so much hunger, intensity and skill,” Watson said. “When you match up against him – and (the fact he can) score as well as he can – it makes you want to up your game. When you are playing with him, it makes you want to give him the ball more because he can score, and in a variety of ways.”
While things look good for Creighton in regards to its NCAA chances, the team also has their eyes on what Villanova has: a championship.
McDermott and Watson know it will be a challenge to take Villanova down.
“To knock them off the perch is going to be difficult,” McDermott said. “They’re so good at home – it’s such a difficult place to play. The thing about Villanova is they don’t beat themselves. Very seldom do they make more mistakes than their opponent. You’re going to have to find a way to beat them (yourself) because they are not going to beat themselves.”
While McDermott was more diplomatic in his praise/pursuit of Villanova, Watson sung a slightly different tune.
You see, Watson is a Philadelphia kid (Boys’ Latin High School), and he said Villanova was his dream school growing up. He now wants to stick it to them.
“I want to beat (Villanova) because that was my dream school out of high school and they didn’t recruit me,” Watson said of his desire to dethrone the defending Big East and national champs. “I kind of took that personal.”
“To beat the national champs is something that can cap my career,” Watson added. “If I can say there are things I have not done – and that I really want to cap my career (with) and my own personal book – it would be to beat Villanova and then make it to the NCAA Tournament.”