The anticipation started building the moment the final horn blew in Fort Worth last March.
Seemingly playing on fumes after key injuries left them shorthanded, the Bluejays still pushed eventual national champion Kansas to the brink. It was a three-point game with under a minute to play before falling short in the NCAA Tournament.
With its core nucleus of young stars returning and a season of experience under their belt, the players’, coaches’ and fans’ imaginations had already turned to the future.
Early on, national media pegged Creighton as a team to watch next season. Key off season additions, most notably South Dakota State transfer and Summit League Player of the Year Baylor Scheierman, only added to the hype. That notion was confirmed by the preseason polls, where Creighton opens with its best national ranking in program history—#9 in both the A.P. and Coaches polls.
For the first time since joining the league in 2013, the Jays are also the preseason favorites to capture the Big East crown. For a program that has thrived on proving it belongs on the big stage, handling the pressure of high expectations will be crucial, but the players say they’re ready for the challenge.
“We know we haven’t achieved anything yet. We’re going to get everybody’s best game, be marked on everybody’s calendar because of being so highly touted,” said sophomore guard Trey Alexander, “The only way we’re going to keep each other grounded is number one, by not even paying much attention to the expectations and just being able to keep our hard hats on and keep working and chipping at things one day at a time and make the most of getting better each day.”
Or as fellow sophomore guard Ryan Nembhard put it more succinctly, ”We didn’t pay too much attention to the expectations last year so we’re not going to pay too much attention to them this year.”
The schedule offers plenty of opportunities for Creighton to prove it deserves the lofty ranking and preseason hype. After opening with a quartet of home games in which they will be heavily favored, starting with St.Thomas on Nov. 7, the Jays travel to Hawaii for the Maui Jim Maui Invitational and their first big test. A bevy of tough opponents await depending on how things shake out, starting with #24 Texas Tech Nov. 20. Either Arkansas or Louisville are next up with Arizona, Cincinnati, Ohio State and San Diego State rounding out the other side of the bracket.
After returning from that gauntlet, Creighton travels to Austin as part of the BIG EAST-Big 12 Battle, squaring off against Texas Dec.1. The Jays are back home for the annual tilt against in-state rival Nebraska Dec. 4 before leaving for Las Vegas and a pair of neutral site games versus BYU and Arizona State (Dec. 10 and 12).
After that comes the always-challenging Big East slate beginning with a road contest at Marquette Dec. 16. And for the first time in program history the Jays will be playing on Christmas, hosting DePaul that afternoon.
By all accounts the players worked hard in the offseason at improving individual weaknesses, and a quick eye test indicates that Creighton’s strength and conditioning program is doing its job. When asked if he was pleased with his team’s offseason efforts head coach Greg McDermott answered emphatically.
“Absolutely, this team has never been afraid of work and that continues to be the case. If anything we need to chase them out of the gym to make sure they have enough legs left for practice, and as a coach, that’s what you hope for.”
McDermott has been a head coach for 28 years now, as he enters his 13th season guiding the Jays. Like all veteran coaches he is quick to not let the hype go to his players’ heads.
“The reality of it is that last year we talked about daily improvement,” said McDermott. “We knew we were going to make some mistakes, and we just tried to clean them up the best we could and see if we could eliminate them the next day. We’ve really taken the same approach; let’s get after today and try to get better, let’s try to build on yesterday. If we can stack enough days on top of each other we’ll have the opportunity to be where we want to be come March.”
While the conversation about the Jays usually begins with the guards, topic number one has to be the emergence of Junior Center Ryan Kalkbrenner as a force to be reckoned with in the post. The 7’1” 260 pound big man is a preseason first team all conference pick and the reigning Big East defensive player of the year. Kalkbrenner averaged 13.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots per game last season while leading the league in field goal percentage and offensive rebounds per game.
No surprise Kalkbrenner shot it at a high percentage with 69 dunks to his credit last season. Watching the big man punish the rim to finish a pic and roll lob pass from Nembhard became a common sight last season. Should be a regular occurrence this year too. Kalkbrerner worked on his jump shot in the offseason in order to enhance his skill set, but as important as his contributions are on offense, it’s his size, strength, and intelligence on the defensive end that set the tone for the team.
The talented sophomore trio of Alexander, Nembhard and forward Arthur Kaluma should be able to elevate their games to another level after each were named to the Big East All-Freshman team last season, with Nembhard earning Freshman of the Year honors.
With his 6’7” 225 pound frame, Kaluma’s size and athleticism give the Jays an added dimension both inside and out. After struggling at times early last year, Kaluma found his groove as the season progressed, culminating in All-Big East Tournament honors and a strong performance in the Big Dance. It won’t come as much of a surprise if Kaluma is able to improve on his 10.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game averages from his rookie campaign.
“I feel more like a veteran on this team now and with that comes a certain responsibility,” said Kaluma. “I like where I am confidence-wise, shooting-wise, skill- wise … I feel like it’s all coming together and it’s going to be a big year for our team.”
Nembhard returns to run the point, and is fully recovered from the broken wrist that sidelined him down the stretch last season. He chipped in 11.3 points per game last season while ranking third in the Big East in assists per game and minutes per game. Setting the tone for the offense is the primary role of any great point guard, and while Nembhard is able to create his own shot, he excels at getting his teammates involved. It’s a role that embodies the current state of the program.
As Nembhard puts it, “When you have great players and top guys on the team willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team, that just makes everybody else want to be selfless and it makes the program selfless. When you build a team like that it just helps to achieve your goals when everybody is on the same page.”
Alexander slides into the starting role in the two guard spot after gamely filling in at the point when Nembhard went down. That experience along with overall improvement over the course of the season offered a glimpse of his potential. Alexander’s jumper has looked lethal in preseason practice, and his wide wingspan allows him to be especially disruptive on defense.
“My confidence is at an all time high, and it shows in my game,” said Alexander. “Having some success and winning some big games last year gave us a taste of success and makes me want to win that much more. I just want to bring that competitive nature and help us win in any way possible.”
Another player not lacking in confidence is the aforementioned senior guard/small forward Baylor Scheierman. The Aurora, Nebraska native was one of the most highly sought after players in the transfer portal. His addition appears to be the missing puzzle piece the Jays needed to take them to the next level. Last season at South Dakota State he averaged 16.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game while leading his team to the NCAA Tournament.
Sheierman’s ability to fill the stat sheet is only part of the story as he’s also gained the reputation as a bit of a showman. Creighton fans attending the exhibition win over Drury got a sneak preview of Sheierman magic when he zipped an over the head no-look pass to a cutting Kalkbrenner for an easy bucket. The crowd was buzzing and even Coach Mac couldn’t suppress a big smile.
“One of my idols growing up is Pistol Pete and the flair that he had for the game and making it like a show,” explained Sheierman, “That’s something that I try to do … I just try to have a lot of fun and get the crowd involved as best as I can because that’s the best kind of atmosphere to play basketball in.”
As talented as the starting lineup is, the Jays bench is also poised to contribute in a big way. Junior guard Shareef Mitchell returns after missing last season with injuries. Mitchell’s defensive intensity and overall energy add another element to the mix. The hometown hero also returns with a sense of purpose.
“Having to sit out last season was definitely hard,” said Mitchell. “When something gets taken away from you it gives you the chance to step back and realize what you’re missing out on. Being someone who’s never been injured before in my career, it was very humbling. Sometimes before I think I took things for granted, but now that I’m back I take every day for what it’s worth and appreciate the chance to go to work with my teammates every day.”
Another guard with extensive collegiate experience is senior transfer from TCU Francisco Farabello. He’s impressed the coaching staff with his leadership ability, outside shooting and steady hand running the offense.
Freshman guard from Northridge, California, Ben Shtolzberg is also expected to contribute. At 6’ 4” and 200 lbs., Shtolzberg physically looks ready for the Big East battles despite his youth, and his hard nose effort in preseason practice seems to have earned him a spot in the rotation.
Forward Mason Miller looks stronger after redshirting last season and will be counted on as another offensive threat off the bench. The son of longtime NBA star Mike Miller was a big time recruit, earning the title of Tennessee’s Mr. Basketball coming out of high school. If Miller lives up to his potential as a sharpshooter, Creighton’s offensive fire power goes from scary good already to downright terrifying for opposing coaches.
The backup center is another newcomer, 6’10” 240 lb. freshman Frederick King. The big man from the Bahamas looks Big East ready already, and going up against Kalkbrenner in practice everyday should only help with that. With all the talent around him, there won’t be much pressure on King to contribute..hustle, set solid screens without fouling and do some dirty work on the boards and King’s job is done.
All that depth allows coach McDermott and the Jays to get back to how they like to play; fast and furious. Last season circumstances led them to throttle it down a notch, and especially early on the team struggled knocking in shots from beyond the arc. Learning how to win despite the offensive challenges ultimately helped the young squad gain confidence. Putting in the work in the gym along with the influx of new talent should help them live up to the “Let it fly” moniker once again.
“With the depth we have we go 9-10 deep,” added Mitchell. “I think that’s a scary thing for the opponent when you have so many bodies coming at you at the pace we play. It’s going to be exciting to see what we can do with that over the entire season.”
All indications are that it will be a season to remember. And while not lacking in confidence the Jays are far from satisfied..
“I always still think of us as the underdog in every situation,” said Kaluma. “Even though we might get every team’s best punch, that doesn’t stop us from being humble and knowing that if we want to achieve our goals we’re going to have to keep working hard at improving every single day.”
So, Arthur, what are those goals?
“Man, I just want to win the national championship, win the Big East, just have a great year”