Jays Locked in and Loaded for their First Big East Hunt
Coaches peg Creighton 3rd in preseason league poll
The calendar may say the holidays are still weeks away, but Christmas already has come early and often for head coach Greg McDermott and Bluejay fans this year…and they must have been awfully good given what Santa has been leaving under the tree.
The biggest gift came last spring when Creighton accepted an invitation to join the revamped Big East Conference, elevating the program from “mid-major” status to the big time.
A few weeks later, two-time all-American and the nation’s leading scorer, Doug McDermott announced he was putting his NBA career on hold and returning for his senior season.
Then the surprise stocking stuffer came in July when the NCAA unexpectedly awarded guard Grant Gibbs a rare 6th season of eligibility due to lost time earlier in his career at Gonzaga because of injuries. For Jays fans, the gift of another season to appreciate the savvy playmaking and old-school game of the team’s best passer was like Ralphie unwrapping a Red-Ryder BB Gun.
Suddenly a team that looked to be in rebuilding mode found itself returning 4 starters, over 81% of its points and minutes, as well as 95% of its 3-point baskets after finishing with the 2nd best shooting percentage in the country last season.
“We have enough guys returning and enough experience where we feel like we can really make a big splash in this new conference and I think that can kind of carry over into the future,” said Doug McDermott.
Creighton’s other returning starters are senior guard and emotional spark plug Jahenns Manigat and junior point guard Austin Chatman. The lone newcomer in the starting lineup is 6’11” center Will Artino, who has some big shoes to fill after the graduation of defensive stopper Gregory Echenique. Losing Echenique hurts, but all that experience should help the Jays adapt to the style of play in the Big East, long known as one of the most physical and athletic leagues in college hoops.
“We’re going to have to make adjustments to counteract the athleticism and strength that we are going to see on a nightly basis, but other teams are going to have to adapt to the way we play because I don’t think a lot of teams have seen the kind of offensive arsenal we have in terms of shooters and guys who can make plays,” said Gibbs.
Another senior with a wealth of experience and one of the nation’s best long range weapons, forward Ethan Wragge, agrees…
“We are really excited about the opportunity to play in the new league, and I think we will be up to the challenge,” said Wragge. “I think grinding through a tough season will help us see where we stack up against some of the best teams in the country and help prepare us for postseason play. I think by the time March comes along we should be where we want to be.”
Where they want to be is back in the NCAA tournament, where the Jays hope to make a deeper run after being bounced by ACC powerhouses Duke and North Carolina the past two seasons in the 3rd round. For now though, it’s the transition to the Big East that’s getting all the buzz.
“It’s really exciting when you think of the traditions of some of these programs, the venues, the storied players and coaches. It’s a reflection on what we have done the past couple of years to get this invite and opportunity,” said Gibbs. “All that’s good and well, but I think there’s a responsibility with this team to establish ourselves in this league in our inaugural year and hit the ground running.”
The non-conference slate contains a handful of cupcakes but road contests at St. Joseph’s and Long Beach State as well as home games versus California and arch-rival Nebraska won’t be cake walks. Creighton also travels to Anaheim the last weekend in November for the Wooden Legacy tournament, opening up with Arizona State.
Then the real upgrade begins as Creighton swaps its’ longtime Missouri Valley Conference regimen of bus rides to Peoria and Carbondale for plane trips to Philadelphia and New York. The Jays’ stay home for their first ever Big East contest, for what promises to be quite the party when preseason league favorite Marquette visits the ‘Link on New Years Eve.
One component the Jays have lacked lately is having wing players who can break down a defense and get into the paint consistently. A pair of junior college additions to the roster may have filled that gap. Guards James Milliken and Devin Brooks bring athleticism as well as experience to Creighton’s already solid backcourt.
Brooks knows all about Big East basketball, having grown up in Harlem, New York before spending the past two seasons across the river running the point for Iowa Western, where he earned junior college Third Team All-American status. A flashy playmaker with the ability to get to the rim and create his own shot, Brooks is good enough offensively that the Jays shouldn’t skip a beat when he fills in for starting point guard Austin Chatman.
Milliken joins the Jays from Cowley County Community College (KS) where he averaged 18.4 points a game last season. Before that he was a multi-sport star at Jordan Matthews High School in Siler City, North Carolina, earning MVP honors in basketball four times, football three times, and track once while finishing as the school’s all-time leading scorer. He also set a school record with 54 points in one game.
“All the guys made me feel comfortable from the start,” said Milliken. “We all communicate real well and hang out with each other a lot. Our chemistry is real good.”
Chatman was Creighton’s main option for penetrating the defense last season, but he doesn’t mind the extra help…even if it means he spends a little less time on the court.
“It should help take some of the pressure off me, and it should help out a lot because last year I got a little winded and tired toward the end of the season so it should help to balance out the minutes a little more,” said Chatman.
6’6” junior guard Avery Dingman gives the Jays another experienced outside shooting threat and a solid defensive presence on the perimeter. Also in the mix after redshirting last season is another sharp-shooting guard, 6’2” freshman Isaiah Zierden. Sporting a noticeably more sculpted frame, it looks like Zierden took full advantage of his season off with frequent visits to the weight room.
Another newcomer to the mix won’t be scoring any points on the court, but he could prove just as valuable in helping the Jays adapt to life in the Big East. Former Connecticut assistant Patrick Sellers joins the Creighton staff after spending his entire career as a player and coach on the east coast, and so far he is psyched by what he has seen from his new squad.
“I’ve never been a part of a team with so many offensive weapons. I’ve been around some real long and athletic teams, but as far as being able to put the ball in the hoop, this is the best team by far,” said Sellers. “Also we’ve got big time basketball IQ so it’s fun to watch, and it’s exciting to come to practice every day.”
The players have also come to appreciate the “basketball IQ “ of their new coach.
“He brings a whole different dynamic. He’s familiar with the east coast and Big East basketball unlike most of us, said Ethan Wragge. “He’s been all over the world with basketball, and he just brings a whole different, unique perspective that we haven’t had in years past. He’s been a great addition.”
Rebounding, or the lack thereof, will be the key to the Jays’ success according to Sellers.
“It’s going to have to be a team effort on the glass. I know we will be able to put the ball in the hole, but rebounding is going to be real important for us. If we can rebound the ball we should be playing on Saturday night in Madison Square Garden for the Big East championship,” said Sellers.
In addition to Artino, Creighton will also count on 6’9” Freshman Zach Hanson to shore up the post. Hanson joins the Jays as a two-time South Dakota high school player of the year out of Pierre. At 245 pounds Hanson gives the team some much needed bulk inside, and the coaches have been impressed with his work ethic and shooting touch. 7’0” sophomore center Geoffrey Groselle continues to battle foot and achilles issues, but if he can ever get healthy, the Jays could sure use his size.
Creighton’s other two scholarship players, freshmen Darian Harris and Toby Hegner, are expected to take redshirt seasons.
But the story is still about the kid who a few short season’s ago looked like he was headed for a redshirt his freshman season as well. Three years later, Doug McDermott is the Big East preseason player of the year, and a strong candidate for national player of the year. He is the leading scorer in Creighton history and the program’s greatest player of all time, but the real secret to his success has been hard work and humility.
“I think what’s impressed me more than anything is his attitude when it comes to attention and accolades,” said Gibbs. “He is very humble and hasn’t let being in the spotlight go to his head so that has always reflected positively on everybody else on our team.”
According to Gibbs it starts with Doug’s old man…
“Coach Mac has gotten everyone on board with our philosophy here, which is valuing the team aspect, making the extra pass, and covering up for your teammate,” said Gibbs. “I really think that’s been a huge part of why we’ve been successful because we have that belief in ourselves late in games that one of your teammates is going to be there for you, and it’s helped us win a lot of really close games. That comes from the top with Coach Mac and it leads into Doug’s approach to the game and filters all the way through our program.”
The Bluejays open the season with a pair of home contests against Alcorn State Nov. 8 and UMKC Nov. 11. Both games tip off at 7:00 p.m. and will be televised on FoxSports1.
Hottest ticket in town…indeed
The Jays’ recent run of success, coupled with the novelty of a new league and a new slate of marquee opponents have put ticket sales through the roof. Eleven of Creighton’s 16 home games at the CenturyLink Center are already sold out. Season ticket sales have topped the 15,000 mark for the first time ever, shattering last season’s record of 13,739.
Creighton finished with the 6th best average attendance in the nation last year at 17,155 fans per contest. Too bad the ‘Link only seats 17,390 for basketball games because it looks like the Jays could pack in over 20,000 when Georgetown and Marquette come calling this year.
Equally impressive has been the ticket sales for the Big East Tournament to be played March 12-15 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Creighton fans have already snatched up over 1,900 tickets for the event, outselling every other school by a wide margin.