Has a major college basketball coach ever looked so darn comfortable in his new job? Rarely does a coaching transition go as smoothly and seamlessly as Creighton’s recent switch from longtime leader Dana Altman to new Coach Greg McDermott. And rarely does the old coach leave the cupboards as well stocked with talent as that which McDermott inherited with the Bluejays returning four starters from last season, including preseason Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Kenny Lawson Jr. “Dana left the program in unbelievable shape. Most of the jobs I’ve taken … they’ve needed to be fixed, but that’s not the case with this one,” says McDermott. “We just need to build upon the great tradition that he already established. But I’m Greg McDermott, I’m not going to attempt to be Dana Altman; we’re different people, we’re different coaches. I’ll try to do the best I can to take this program to even new heights, and I certainly think that is something very attainable.” The seemingly seamless transition began last April, the moment Altman informed Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen he was leaving for Oregon. Rasmussen’s search lasted exactly one phone call. Two days later McDermott said goodbye to Iowa State and hello to Creighton. Seven months later, he looks like he’s been on the job for years. Assistant coach Darian DeVries spent the past 12 seasons working under Altman but elected to stay on and join McDermott’s staff. DeVries hopes he can pick up fresh tricks from his new mentor, but he is mostly impressed by how well McDermott fits in. “I think that’s exactly the reason Bruce Rasmussen hired him. You’re talking about a Midwest guy that’s very personable and very easy to get along with. He goes out of his way to make sure people get to know him and he gets to know them. He’s great at building relationships, and I think that’s something that the people of Omaha will really appreciate,” says DeVries. So far the good feelings are flowing both ways. “Truth be told I’m a country kid from Eastern Iowa so I’ve never lived in a city this size so there was a little apprehension from that standpoint, but Omaha doesn’t feel like a big city to me. It feels like a place where there is a helpful hand around every corner,” says McDermott. Building relations with the community can be important for a new coach, but not nearly as important as building relationships with an unfamiliar group of players. According to DeVries, the new coach has done it. “He’s a great communicator,” says DeVries, “I think the guys have really responded well to him. What’s been helpful and important in this transition is the relationships he has built in a short period of time.” The players agree. “Our team chemistry is the best it’s ever been right now,” says junior point guard Antoine Young. “We’re all like a big family, and we all have a huge connection with our coach, and he has a connection with us. He understands us, and we understand him. It’s all good for our common goal.” “The players know that my door is always open, and I want them to come in and ask questions,” says McDermott. “I can’t always promise that they’re going to like the answer to the question, but I can guarantee that I’m going to tell them the truth.” Young, a 6’0” junior out of Bellevue West, returns to lead the Creighton attack after starting all but one game last season. The Jays will count on him to log at least 35 minutes a game after backup Andrew Bock’s transfer to Pacific in the off-season left the Jays’ thin at the point. Young says he put in extra work in the off-season to prepare, and the players say McDermott’s new training regimen was no joke. “Our conditioning was more difficult than it has been in the past, but it has made us better, made us a better team and brought us closer together,” says Young. “All of it translated to the floor especially on the defensive end, we are talking a lot more, we know where each other are going to be and we trust each other a lot more.” The one unspoken truth in the Creighton camp is this: If Young gets injured the Jays could be in real trouble. Jay backers may want to log a few more minutes of their own at church — praying Young stays healthy. If he goes down so could the Jays’ season. “You don’t want to go into a season thin at any position, but it is what it is,” says McDermott, “Fortunately he is a guy who seems like he can play forever. He doesn’t really get fatigued, but we will have to be careful as the season goes on and in practice that we don’t run him into the ground.” Redshirt freshman and walk-on guard out of Omaha Creighton Prep, 6’0” Taylor Stormberg is expected to give Young an occasional breather. Freshman guard Jahenns Manigat, 6’1” from Ottawa, Ontario, will log some time at the point while primarily playing off-guard. Manigat is Creighton’s first-ever Canadian player. Another athletic guard the Jays will count on to make plays is 6’4” senior Darryl Ashford. Ashford’s soft shooting touch combined with the ability to slash through the lane helped him average 7.4 ppg last season. When he is hot he is dangerous, but he seemed to disappear for long stretches last season. More assertiveness by Ashford would help bolster the offense. Equally helpful to the cause would be senior guard Kaleb Korver’s quest to locate his lost shooting touch. After shooting 44.8 percent on three pointers as a sophomore, Korver struggled to shoot 31.7 percent from beyond the arc last season. The rest of his game suffered as a result, leaving Korver as eager for a fresh start as anyone in the lineup. Maybe 6’7” sophomore forward Ethan Wragge could help show him the range. Wragge set a Creighton freshman record by knocking down 68 three-pointers a year ago while shooting 43.3 percent. He hit a trifecta in 21 straight games heading into the season. Wragge’s issue has been staying on the floor, as foul trouble often limited his minutes last season. It’s an issue his new boss is aware of. “We’re on him every day in practice because he does it there too. It’s something that he has to address and he knows it,” says McDermott. “The only thing I can do is let him know the horn is going to blow when he gets that second foul.” Creighton will also count on perimeter firepower from 6’2” sophomore guard Josh Jones. After getting off to a slow start last season, Jones heated up as the season progressed, gaining more playing time after P’Allen Stinnett’s suspension. The Omaha Central grad made the most of it, starting the final seven games of the season. As his confidence grew late in the year, so did his scoring output. Look for Jones to step up his game, and look out if he ever gets into the open floor for a dunk. McDermott has the luxury of having a pair of quality big men at his disposal in a league where teams sometimes struggle to find one. Kenny Lawson Jr., 6’9” center, led the team in scoring and rebounding last season. He is one of five seniors on the Bluejay roster. Lawson was named the preseason Missouri Valley Conference player of the year in voting by the league’s coaches in mid-October. Lawson’s 1.5 blocks per game led the Valley last season and his 230 rebounds were the most recorded by a Bluejay since 1993-94. Joining Lawson in the paint once he becomes eligible Dec. 17 is 6’9” Gregory Echenique. The 270-pounder from Venezuela transferred from Rutgers where he averaged 9.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots in a season and a half for the Big East school. “I hope I can help the team improve in rebounding and provide a strong defensive presence inside and work together with Kenny to make sure we are respected in the paint,” says Echenique. “We’ve got two very talented young men that do most of their damage around the basket, and either are very comfortable at defending away from the basket, so we’ve got to figure out a way to play those two together some, and we’ll have to be creative to do that,” says McDermott. The added muscle down low allows senior forward Wayne Runnels to step outside a little further where he’s more comfortable facing the basket. Runnels at 6’6” struggled last season playing out of position while attempting to bolster a thin front line, but he believes last season’s trials made him a better player. “I’m looking forward to getting back in my comfort zone,” says Runnels. “Having to play more down low helped make me tougher and I’m better for it, but really all I care about is just going out and playing basketball and helping the team however I can.” Speaking of toughness, 6’5” senior forward Casey Harriman usually leads the Jays in that category even if he comes up a little short in some of the statistical ones. Harriman’s willingness to throw his body around playing defense and scrapping for loose balls sets the tone for what McDermott wants his squad to emulate. Unfortunately, all that banging around took a toll on Harriman’s body. A shoulder injury has kept him out of a good portion of preseason practice. Hiring McDermott came with an added bonus. His 6’7” son Doug was an all-state forward on the two-time defending Iowa state champion Ames High School squad, averaging over 20.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per contest as a senior. Doug originally committed to Northern Iowa and Coach Ben Jacobsen, who happens to be his godfather. Jacobsen served as an assistant coach under McDermott and took over the Panther program when McDermott left for Iowa State four years ago. Creighton was the younger McDermott’s second choice during recruiting, so when dad made the move, the opportunity to be together was impossible to pass up. Jacobsen, always a class act, let Doug out of his commitment with no strings attached. “My dad and Coach Jacobsen are close friends and I’ve known him my whole life so that made it a lot easier, but it was still really hard to tell him … fortunately he was really understanding.” Doug already turned some heads with his play in Creighton’s 79-67 exhibition win Nov. 4, against Northern State. In 20 minutes of action, he led the team with 18 points, shooting 6 for 9, while pulling down a team-high seven rebounds and blocking a shot. “He’s got unbelievable instincts. I wish I could tell you that I taught him that, but I didn’t,” said his proud papa after the game. “He just has a way of catching the ball and getting it to the rim really quick … ” Other players who could see playing time are sophomore walk-on forwards 6’8” Matthew Dorwart and 6’5” Derek Sebastian. And 6’11” freshman center Will Artino from Waukee, Iowa needs to add some muscle to his 205-pound frame, but daily battles in practice with Lawson and Echenique should toughen him up quite a bit. Adding further depth to the roster at guard are Ross Ferrarini, a 6’3” walk-on from Omaha Westside and 6’2” Kody Ingle, a first-team all-stater from Southeast Polk High in Altoona, Iowa. Ingle averaged 22.5 points per game as a senior, finishing as his school’s all-time leading scorer. Offensively expect the Jays to show some versatility based upon who’s playing and the opponent. McDermott’s past teams have often shown a knack for working the ball around until they find a good shot, utilizing a variety of offensive sets. “Any coach that just tries to jam a style of play down a group of people’s throats is making a mistake, you have to evaluate your personnel for their strengths and weaknesses and then try to build an offense and a defense that best fits that particular group at that particular point in time,” says McDermott. While everyone knows you have to score to win, McDermott’s main focus is defense. Players say he often spends lots of practice time working defensive drills and principles. Look for McDermott’s teams to play mostly man-to-man, quarter-court defense with a high energy, in-your-face style. “His strength is his defensive minded approach,” says the coach’s son. “He’s really easy to play for, he’ll get on you, but then after practice he’ll be cool with you and sit down and talk over any questions you have.” All the positive feelings coming out of the Creighton camp would lead to the belief that the Jays should improve on last season’s 18-16 mark and a fourth place finish in the Valley. The panel of 39 members, including league coaches, sports information directors and media that shape the preseason poll either aren’t convinced, or believe Creighton’s conference rivals aren’t too shabby, pegging the Jays to again finish fourth. Leading the way by a wide margin is Wichita State with 33 first place votes. The Shockers return four starters from last season’s 25-win team including explosive all-league guard Toure Murry. Missouri State is next followed by defending Valley regular season and tournament champion, Northern Iowa. Bradley is picked for fifth place, while garnering a pair of first-place votes. Highlights on Creighton’s non-conference schedule include an early season match-up in Des Moines against McDermott’s former team, Iowa State, Nov. 21, and a pair of road games: against Northwestern Nov. 28, and Nebraska Dec. 5. Marquee games at the Qwest Center include a Dec. 1 tussle with BYU’s Cougars, while St. Joseph’s Hawks fly into town for a Dec. 11 showdown. The Jays open the season with a stretch of three home games against lightly regarded opponents beginning Friday night with Alabama State. Nineteen of Creighton’s 33 contests are scheduled for television. KMTV looks to make the local fans happy again with a slate of eight games, including three conference road games. Once the season begins, McDermott is bound to experience a fair share of challenges as his team adjusts and grows into his system, but don’t expect him to panic, or the team chemistry to fail. “My dad is a pretty normal guy, a good guy,” says the younger McDermott. “He doesn’t bring his work home and take it out on his family. If he has a good day he will be the same as if he had a really bad day.” Time will tell, but all signs point to more good days than bad days to come for McDermott and his new, happy family.

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