After a couple of seasons when the Jays sometimes struggled to pick their game off the floor, expectations for this season’s edition of Creighton basketball are through the roof … with the holy grail of college hoops, the Final Four, seeming a legitimate goal for the team that is ranked at No. 23 in the preseason Coaches Poll. It's first such preseason nod in four years.
The Big East preseason poll of coaches, as well as most publications, have the Jays picked to finish third in the high-powered league. Defending national champion Villanova is the choice to finish on top for the fourth year in a row with Xavier tabbed as the runner up.
The Jays return a plethora of talent and experience to help bolster their case. Seven players have extensive starting experience, led by senior point guard and preseason All-Big East First Team pick, Maurice Watson Jr..
“He’s our glue. He holds us all together," said junior guard Marcus Foster. "In practice if things are going hard he’s the one who pulls us together, even before coach McDermott, so we can fix things. He’s a point guard like I’ve never seen before, a guy who can create for his teammates whenever he wants to but also a guy who can score whenever he wants to.”
Watson is the NCAA active career leader in assists with 639, and he will have plenty of firepower surrounding him to help add to that total. The Jays “Let it Fly” mantra will be at full throttle with the lightning-quick Watson pushing the pace at every opportunity. Head Coach Greg McDermott’s seventh Creighton team could be his best yet.
All those expectations might cause some teams to get caught up in the hype, but not if their court general has anything to say about it.
“Sure I like hearing all the good things, I like being in a good preseason position,” said Watson, “But all that hype should just make us want to work harder. We want to be in first place. Third place isn’t first place so why should we be satisfied with that? We won’t be satisfied with that.”
While the Jays look to make some noise on a national level, a pair of hometown heroes are expected to play a big role. Sophomore guard Khyri Thomas from Omaha Benson and redshirt freshman center Justin Patton from Omaha North have both worked hard at improving their game over the offseason, and according to the coaches the results have been apparent. Patton’s 7’ frame certainly looks more chiseled, proof that he took advantage of his redshirt season with time spent in the weight room.
A lack of strength was never a problem last year for the muscular Thomas, but as the season wore on a lack of confidence took a toll. He scored 18 points in the opener against Texas Southern and 22 on the road versus Loyola (Chicago) before struggling through much of conference play. Thomas started to turn things around during Creighton’s three-game postseason NIT run and took that momentum into offseason workouts.
“We just don’t want to disappoint,” said Patton. “Khyri really did a good job holding down for me while I was redshirting. This year I’m going to be out there and have his back, and we will be able to put on for our city.”
Thomas and Patton have also earned a reputation as team jokesters. Over the course of a long, pressure-filled season, a little levity can go a long way to help keep a team loose as long as they maintain their focus.
“Last year we just automatically clicked," said Thomas. "We’re both from Omaha, we both love basketball, and we’re both kind of ... goofy. He’s my roommate so I guess I’m stuck with him.”
“They’re great kids and talented players,” said McDermott. “They are as popular on our campus with the student body as they are on our team. They’ve just done a great job of being part of our community. The progress that they’ve made in the time they’ve been here has been really impressive, and they are both going to play an integral part on our team this year.”
Having each other to keep each other grounded and loose doesn’t hurt either.
“We’ve been through a lot of the same things growing up, so he knows how I feel and think most of the time,” said Patton. “He knows I trust him, and he trusts me so we listen to each other both on and off the court. We try to give each other perspective about our game and what we’re doing wrong and what we can do different.”
Both cite Coach McDermott as a huge influence in their lives.
“He’s like a father figure to Justin and I," said Thomas. "We were both raised by our mothers, and I don’t want to say we really needed discipline, but he has made us more accountable. He can be real hard on us sometimes, but it’s all love.”
“We both look up to him and we talk about him like he’s our dad," added Patton. "It’s fun having someone like him in our corner,”
“I think the world of them,” said McDermott. “They had a lot of other offers and opportunities to go elsewhere. It means a lot to me that they thought enough of our program and our coaching staff to stay in Omaha. I’m really proud of them. I’m proud of the way they conduct themselves, number one, but I’m also really proud of the way they’ve worked.”
Few players have generated as much buzz in the Creighton fan base before they’ve ever stepped on the court for the Jays as Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster. He dazzled as a freshman, earning second team all-Big 12, and averaged 14.1 pts. per game over two seasons with the Wildcats before some off-court issues led to his departure. According to the Creighton staff, Foster has been a great teammate and solid student since stepping onto campus, and any struggles he may have had are a thing of the past.
“Everybody has to face a little adversity from time to time, and I feel I learned from it,” said Foster. “It has made me a better person, both on and off the court. So it’s definitely something I’m glad I went through, but now it’s in the past and I can get on to the next page.”
Foster’s solid frame looks built to withstand the rigors of the Big East, and he has drawn raves for his defensive work in practice as well as his scoring acumen. Paired with Thomas, the Jays have a couple of strong, lockdown defenders on the perimeter.
Creighton’s other returning starter at the guard spot is senior sharp shooter Isaiah Zierden. Hampered by injuries throughout his career, Zierden ability to stay healthy will have a big impact on the team’s success. Last season he chipped in 10.2 points per game, including a career high 31 points at DePaul. Besides providing a serious outside shooting threat, Zierden possesses a basketball savvy and experience that’s hard to replicate. He led the team in minutes played per game and steals last season. If Watson is the teams’ glue, Zierden is the paste.
Sophomore guard Ronnie Harrell Jr. will also be in the mix for playing time. At 6'7'' he gives the Jays some size and athleticism on the perimeter as well as another legitimate threat from beyond the arc. Junior walk-on guard Tyler Clement provides further depth at guard.
The Jays also have plenty of experience on the front line with senior center Zach Hansen, senior forward Cole Huff and junior forward Toby Hegner. Hansen underwent knee surgery in the offseason, but should be close to returning to action by the first game. Hansen gives the Jays a measure of size and physicality down low they need to help counter what is a team built primarily on skill and finesse.
Huff also had offseason surgery after knee issues plagued him for much of last season. Despite dealing with the pain, which also included a midseason shoulder injury, Huff still finished second on the squad in both points (11.3 per game) and rebounds (5.1 per contest). The coaching staff has been limiting his reps in practice hoping to keep him fresh for the long grind ahead. The 6’8” Huff showed flashes of brilliance at times last season and possesses a deadly shooting stroke when he’s dialed in. Just ask the Seton Hall Pirates, who Huff torched for 35 points and 9 boards in the Big East Tournament last March.
Hegner has started 40 games in two seasons. At 6’10”, he can play down low, but it is his versatility that makes him valuable. He’s a scrappy defender with a penchant for hitting the clutch three-pointer.
Redshirt freshman forward Martin Krampelj will also compete for playing time. The 6’9” Slovenian’s athleticism and size should especially help the Jays on the boards while he continues to work on improving his defense.
Newcomers looking to make a splash are freshmen guards Davion Mintz and Kobe Paras. Mintz earned first team all-state honors in North Carolina and will back up Watson at the point. Paras is a celebrity back home in the Philipines, where his dad once earned MVP honors in the Philippines pro league and his mom is a soap opera star. But his real claim to fame is his penchant for throwing down dunks, having won a pair of international competitions as well as viral fame for dunking over Labron James at a camp last summer.