At this time the past couple of years, Creighton basketball fans were downright giddy when discussing the team’s outlook. Stars Marcus Foster, Kyrie Thomas, Justin Patton and Mo Watson had the faithful dreaming big. Challenging for the Big East title and advancing to the Final Four didn’t seem like such a pipe dream.
Injuries to key players dashed those hopes. Sure, those squads made it to the Big Dance, and last year’s team was the last to knock of national champion Villanova, but early tournament exits have left the program searching for that elusive shining moment in March.
A different narrative takes shape in head coach Greg McDermott’s ninth season at the helm. The preseason poll of Big East coaches pegs Creighton at No. 9, ahead of only DePaul. That’s what happens when you lose your top three scorers to graduation and the NBA. But you wouldn’t know it if you caught a Bluejay practice or talked to the players.
“Honestly, I wish they would have just picked us tenth,” said junior point guard Davion Mintz. “That’s just the chip we’ve got to play with every day. We have a lot to prove, and we just need to improve day by day. I’m excited to see what this team can do; being picked so low is perfectly fine.”
“It’s just a number,” said sophomore guard Ty-Shon Alexander.
Fortunately for Creighton fans, the league coaches’ low expectations are more a product of the Bluejays’ inexperience rather than a lack of talent. The cupboard isn’t bare.
Mintz, a returning starter, led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. While tasked with being more of a facilitator his first two seasons, Mintz has shown flashes of being a scoring threat despite averaging just 6.1 points per game. He will be needed to take on more of that role as well as set the tone on defense.
Junior forward Martin Krampelj was arguably the most improved player in the Big East last season, averaging 11.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, before a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his season in January. His absence over the final 14 games changed the course of the season. It was the third major knee injury of Krampelj’s basketball career, and he looked a bit rusty in the Jays’ 101-57 exhibition win over Winona State on Oct. 27. A big key to Creighton’s success lies on whether the big Slovenian can stay healthy and regain his form from last season.
“It’s a long road to go through that one time let alone three times, and to have the motivation and the perseverance to do what you have to do to get back on the floor is tough,” said McDermott. “It would be easy to feel sorry for yourself and cut corners, but I think he was even more determined this time to get back on the floor and be ready. It’s great to have him back.”
Sophomore guards Alexander and Mitch Ballock played extensively last season and will be counted on heavily to step into bigger playmaking and scoring roles. The 6-foot-5 Ballock made the Big East All-Freshman Team last season after averaging 7.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. He started the last five games and led the Jays with 16 points in the loss to Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament.
Alexander chipped in 5.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game last season while also being tasked with playing point guard. The addition of highly recruited freshman Marcus Zegarowski at the point should allow Alexander to focus on shooting from his more natural off-guard position. If his team-leading 17 points (all in the first half) against Winona State are any indication, Alexander should provide a big spark on offense.
Three transfers provide Creighton with solid depth at guard. Senior Kaleb Joseph has been nagged by injuries since joining the squad from Syracuse two years ago but has shown flashes of brilliance offensively when he has gotten on the court. Conner Cashaw graduated from Rice in three years, allowing him to be eligible for this season. Cashaw started every game the past two seasons for Rice, leading the Owls in scoring last season at 15.5 points a game. He also averaged 7.1 rebounds and was chosen to the Conference USA All-Academic Team.
“We have a little bit of a luxury this year. While we’re a very young team, we’re bringing Kaleb and Conner off the bench, two seniors,” said McDermott. “I think they can come in and calm the waters if needed, I hope. It’s nice to have that kind of experience coming off the bench because we’re going to have to do it by committee this year.”
The other member of that backcourt committee is sophomore Damien Jefferson, who played in 29 of 31 games as a freshman for New Mexico, averaging 5.3 points and 2.3 rebounds before sitting out last season after transferring to Creighton. Jefferson also provides versatility with his ability to play forward as well as guard.
The Jays will be anchored down low by a pair of big men from Down Under. Jacob Epperson, a 6-foot-11 sophomore center, was slowed early last season by a knee injury and was expected to redshirt. But when Krampelj was injured Epperson answered the call and made his debut in Creighton’s 22nd game of the season, playing a big role for the team down the stretch. In just 14 minutes per game, Epperson contributed 6.3 points and 2.9 rebounds while shooting almost 70 percent from the field, helped by 14 dunks. He has also shown the ability to step outside and deliver from 3-point range.
Fellow Australian Samson Froling is a 7-foot freshman with loads of experience playing for Australian junior national teams, including helping his team to a 6-0 finish in the FIBA U18 Asian Championship last year. Froling led the team with 14.2 points and blocks with two per game, adding nine rebounds and 1.7 assists in helping the Aussies to the title. He was in the starting lineup for Creighton’s exhibition win over Winona State.
“He’s been incredible,” McDermott said after the exhibition. “For a freshman, it’s impressive how he has the same exact approach every day. You can’t tell by his facial expressions or body language whether he’s having a good practice or bad practice. Sam plays the same way whether his shot is falling or not. His international experience has helped him be mature beyond his years, he’s got a really bright future with his ability to pass and shoot it and handle it. He’s going to give us some options and things we can do with him that are a little different than the big guys we’ve had in the past.”
Another highly recruited freshman expected to contribute is 6-foot-7 forward Christian Bishop from Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Bishop is a two-time First Team All-State player who looked solid in preseason drills as well as the exhibition game.
As usual, the Jays will attack with an up-tempo offense while relying heavily on shooting from beyond the three-point arc. Also as usual, defense could be a work in progress. Coaches and players cited defensive improvement as the biggest factor in shaping the team’s success or failure. That, and the ability of those inexperienced pieces fitting together, will decide whether Bluejay fans will be laughing or crying come March.
“I’ve never put much into preseason rankings when we’ve been ranked second or third, and I don’t put much into it this year,” said McDermott. “It’s a younger league this year, there’s a lot of questions to be answered across the league. I think it’s as hard of a league to call this year in the preseason of any of the six years we’ve been in it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the second- or third-place team finished in the bottom four, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of us picked in the bottom four finish in the top three or four, so a lot can happen.”
High-profile nonconference matchups include home games against Ohio State (Nov. 15) and Gonzaga (Dec. 1), and road trips to Nebraska (Dec. 8) and Oklahoma (Dec. 18). Creighton also travels to the Cayman Islands for a three-day tournament, opening against Boise State (Nov. 19). The Jays open Big East Conference play at Providence (Dec. 31).
All home games will be played at the rechristened CHI Health Center in downtown Omaha.
2018-19 Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll
- St. John’s
- Seton Hall