There is a buzz surrounding Head Coach Greg McDermott’s second Bluejay basketball squad, and, no, the youngsters haven’t been over indulging over at the NoDo nightspots. In fact, these guys have been strictly business heading into the season, and word on the street says it could be a good one, maybe even one worthy of a toast when all is said and done.
It’s been five years since Creighton punched a ticket to the Big Dance and ten years since the Jays knocked off Florida for their last NCAA tournament win. But the players and coaches haven’t shied away from talking about the potential this year’s mix of experience, talent and fresh faces has to break that drought.
“I think about the NCAA tournament every day when I step on the court. I know Creighton hasn’t been there since ’07, and I know the fans are hungry for it so we need to do whatever it takes to get there. We know there are a lot of expectations on us, It’s going to take a lot of hard work. We can’t just go into the season knowing we’re the (Missouri Valley Conference) favorites, we’ve got to go into the season with a chip on our shoulder,” said sophomore forward Doug McDermott.
“I’m tired of sitting at home watching the (NCAA) tournament rather than being in it. I’m kind of done with that, and I think we have the pieces to do it if we just put it together,” said senior point guard Antoine Young. “This is the most talented group of guys I’ve played with, and I think we are all coming together as one…I’m just excited to get the season started.”
The conversation begins with the trio of Young, the team’s only scholarship senior, junior center Gregory Echenique and McDermott. These three aren’t just the best on the Jays’ roster, they might just be the best three players in the Missouri Valley Conference at their positions.
Young has led the league in assist-turnover ratio each of the past two seasons while starting the last 72 games for Creighton. He averaged 13.1 points per game last season while dishing out 195 assists, the third highest single season total in school history. His scoring average was good for seventh in the league, while his average of 5 assists per contest topped the conference and allowed him to become the first player in 18 years to lead the Valley in assists while finishing in the top 10 in scoring.
Without a reliable backup at the point last season, the Jays had to lean heavily on Young, resulting in the second most minutes played in the nation. Being continually counted on to make plays, and being constantly harassed while bringing the ball up court, put some wear and tear on Young as the season wore on.
The addition of freshman point guard Austin Chatman should give Young a few more breathers and help take some of the pressure off his shoulders. He is one of four new scholarship freshmen and three other newcomers that will be key to allowing McDermott to implement a more uptempo style then his squad was able to play last season.
“Without question we are a deeper team than we were a year ago and because of that it is going to allow us to push the ball more and do some things both offensively and defensively that we weren’t able to do last year,” said McDermott. “We have some guys who can get out and run, so we plan on taking advantage of that and play in a way that should be exciting for the fans to watch.”
Echenique gives the Jays a force to be reckoned with down low at 6‘9“ and 270 pounds. He led the conference in field goal percentage last year at 60.9% and also averaged a league best 1.9 blocks per game while earning a spot on the MVC All-Defensive and All-Newcomer teams. Look for Echenique to improve on his 10.5 scoring average and 5.8 rebounding average as his comfort level in the system continues to grow.
The big center from Caracas worked on his game over the summer, playing for the Venezuelan National Team at the FIBA Americas Championship in Argentina, gaining valuable experience going up against international competition including several big men from NBA rosters.
Doug McDermott caught the college basketball world by surprise last season when he went from being a candidate to redshirt to being the first freshman named first team all-MVC since 1951-52. The Valley Freshman and Newcomer of the Year was named as the league’s Newcomer of the Week an amazing seven times over the course of last season.
His basketball savvy and uncanny ability to finish around the rim resulted in some impressive numbers during his freshman campaign. His 581 points were the most by a freshman in both school and Valley history. He finished fourth in the league in scoring at 14.9 ppg. and second in rebounding with 7.2 rpg. He recorded a league best nine double-doubles, grabbing a total of 280 boards — the most by a Bluejay in 20 years. How he handles the attention of being more of a marked man on the court is another big key for the Jays.
“I feel a little extra pressure, but I can’t let that get to me,” said McDermott. “A lot of people don’t think I can meet those expectations, but the way I look at it is to just go out and work as hard as I can and perform the best I can and let those doubts serve as motivation.”
Instead of patting himself on the back, McDermott got to work in the off season adding 20 pounds of muscle to his frame and playing for the USA National team at the U19 FIBA World Championships in Latvia. He used the opportunity to improve his face-up skills toward the basket resulting in his leading the team in three-point shooting and recording the third best scoring and rebounding totals. The extra weight and strength should help him hold his ground better on the defensive end, one of the few weaknesses opponents were able to exploit last season.
“Doug has really embraced the role of a leader. He has taken his work ethic up another notch, which has really helped us because any time your best player is also one of your hardest workers, I think it makes it easier for the guys to look up to,” said assistant coach Darian DeVries. “He has helped us as coaches a lot that way, because by turning up his commitment level in practice, he sets the tone for the whole team.”
The other two starting guards are junior Grant Gibbs and sophomore Jahenns Manigat. Gibbs practiced with the team last season after transferring from Gonzaga, and has emerged as a team leader. His passing ability and court awareness should help shore up one of Creighton’s biggest weaknesses.
“Being able to pass from the wing is something that I’ve always been able to do well, and it’s one of the strengths of my game,” said Gibbs. “Something that the team I think lacked last year was having guys who could make plays and take some of the pressure off Antione having to make a play every time down court. We are going to need to feed our bigs down low, that’s the strength of our team, especially in the Valley, so we need to get those guys touches, and I think that is a role I can fill.”
Manigat was the Jays’ most improved player over the course of last season and he has continued to get better in the off season. His high energy both on and off the court, combined with a magnanimous personality, make him the team’s spark plug. It’s no surprise that both Manigat and Gibbs were recently named team captains despite their relatively new status.
As a team the Jays were also able to get in some extra work in the off season by taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows teams to travel once every four years and play international competition. Creighton spent a week in the Bahamas in August notching a 4-0 record against mostly outmatched foes. The nine extra practice sessions were especially valuable with so many new players adjusting to the system and to each other.
“Sure it helped us getting some extra time on the court together adjusting to the new guys,” said Doug McDermott. “But mostly it was good just to get away and hang out together. We have a real good group guys and we all get along real well, so I think it just helped us to bond even more.”
Junior guard Josh Jones provides additional firepower as does the return of sophomore sharp shooter Ethan Wragge. Wragge, a 6’7” forward, was forced to sit out last season because of plantar fasciitis. When pain free, Wragge has a deadly stroke from behind the arc, as the 68 three-pointers he nailed two seasons ago to break Kyle Korver’s freshman record attest. His ability to spread the floor presents a matchup nightmare for Creighton’s opponents and should keep teams from effectively collapsing down on the post.
6’11” red shirt freshman Will Artino and 7’ freshman Geoff Groselle provide the Jays with size to back up Echenique down low. Artino took advantage of his redshirt season by refining his game and adding at least 20 pounds to his frame, and according to the coaches he is one of the most improved players on the team.
Other freshmen joining the mix besides Texans Groselle and Chatman are 6’6” guard Avery Dingman from Branson, Mo., and 6’5” guard/forward Nevin Johnson from Houston. Dingman averaged over 23 points in high school and is expected to give the Jays another perimeter threat. He knocked down 3 three pointers in Creighton’s 81-42 exhibition win over Rockhurst last Sunday, giving the fans a glimpse of his potential. Johnson is a versatile athlete who can jump right out of the gym. His ability to play more than one position gives McDermott another fresh body to throw in the mix and keep up the throttle down.
It’s the lightening quick Chatman who will have the biggest impact with his ability to break down defenses, distribute the ball and hound the opposing ball handlers. Sure to become a crowd favorite, Chatman has already showed a glimpse of his abilities by leading the team in assists on the Bahamas trip and winning the slam dunk contest during Creighton’s BluejayMadness event to kick off the practice season. His best dunk involved leaping over the 7’Groselle under the basket while catching an alley-oop pass and throwing the ball down one-handed with authority. There wasn’t a butt cheek still touching a chair in the D.J. Sokol arena after that one.
Keeping a talented team with great expectations grounded while getting them to believe they can accomplish big things is the kind of problem most coaches like to have. If the Jays get where they want this season, it will be because of coach McDermott’s steady approach and the ability of the coaching staff to keep their young players focused on one day at a time. Or as Gibbs put it, “It’s the little things that make the big things happen.”
“We want to embrace the enthusiasm and excitement around the team this year, but yet it is a tricky balance to keep them at a level where they still know that they have a lot of work to do,” said DeVries. “We want our guys to have a chip on their shoulder and that hunger to get back (to the NCAA tournament), without thinking they have already got there because somebody has told them they are supposed to be good.”
Nonconference highlights on the schedule include home games against Big 10 foes Nebraska and Northwestern and a neutral site game in Des Moines versus Iowa on Nov. 20. Tough road tests await the Jays as they travel to UAB, Saint Joseph’s, San Diego State and Tulsa.
Creighton opens the season with a pair of games this weekend at the CenturyLink Center. The Jays tip off against North Carolina A&T Friday, Nov. 11 at at 7:05 p.m., while the Chicago State Cougars come prowling in for a 2:05 game on Sunday, Nov.