After a long stay in California, the Creighton Bluejays returned home and are set to host in-state rival Nebraska at CenturyLink Omaha on Sunday.
To preview the game, I reached out to David McGee, the basketball writer for Corn Nation, SB Nation's Nebraska blog, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for me.
Q: This roster looks almost nothing like last year's with only four returning rotation players (Shavon Shields, Ray Gallegos, David Rivers and Benny Parker). Tim Miles has used transfers to rebuild the team on the fly, and it's working pretty well. How have Texas Tech transfer Terran Petteway and Florida transfer Walter Pitchford done for the Cornhuskers early on?
A: They've been the keys to the success they've had so far. Shields has been in a bit of a sophomore slump early. Gallegos hasn't really had a big game like he had last year, yet. Freshman point guard Tai Webster has shown glimpses, but hasn't been quite the program changer to date that many hoped. Those two, as much as anyone have been pretty steady. Petteway's explosive and has carried much of the scoring burden and Pitchford might be the best shooter on the team. Without those two, I'm not sure where this team would be.
Q: What about Omaha native Deverell Biggs? How has he made the transition to Division I ball and how big of a role will he play for the Huskers?
A: Pretty well, it seems. He's not much of a shooter and gets lost on defense at times, but he's got tremendous ability to get into the lane and either draw the foul or kick it out to Petteway or Gallegos or even Pitchford. I said it when he came out of high school and he's proving it true now, but his quickness is something that NU hasn't had in a long time. He takes fairly good care of the ball and doesn't turn it over a ton. If he were a bit better of a defender, he'd be the best player on the team, probably, but until he gets that figured out, he'll limit the minutes Coach Miles can keep him on the floor. Still, he's such a weapon offensively that he'll get 18-22 minutes almost every game. I'm really curious to see how he does back in his home town in front of so many family, friends and former teammates. If he can harness and channel it into his game, it could be a breakout opportunity for him.
Q: This game should be an interesting contrast of styles. Creighton is ninth in the country in assists, while there are only five teams in the nation with fewer assists per game than Nebraska. The Huskers have some athletic, attacking guards on the roster, but isolation basketball is far from the most efficient form of offense. What do you think about Nebraska's offense? Can they score enough to keep up with the Jays?
A: Can? Yes, they have the ability. Haven't been able to say that in a while, but they've got several guys that have the ability to score. That brings some complications along with it in who takes the shots and everything that goes along with that, but the question isn't whether or not they can score enough, it's whether or not they can defend enough. I think the Huskers would be comfortable if this game was in the upper 70s or even lower 80s. They really haven't seen Gallegos get on a roll like he did last year and often times those performances happened on the road, so maybe this is the first time we see him get going. Shields has struggled and Webster is still waiting for his breakout game, too. So, if the Huskers can get those three going like most expected from them coming into the year and Pitchford, Petteway and Biggs don't go ice cold, NU can absolutely score with CU.
Q: McDermott went off for 27 against Nebraska last year, and this year sharpshooting forward Ethan Wragge is playing alongside Creighton's All-American more than ever. How do you envision the Huskers handling that frontcourt?
A: Yeah ... I have no idea. NU's never been able to bottle up McDermott for a complete game. In the past couple of games, Brandon Ubel did an admirable job against him. Things got a bit loose in the later stages of both of those games and he ended up putting up a pretty big number on the Huskers. I'm not sure they have anyone as disciplined as Ubel was defensively. It's going to take a team effort to shut down the CU frontcourt and you'll probably see NU throw a whole bunch of things at the Jays to try and keep them off balance. This will probably be the biggest challenge for NU's young squad that we've seen so far this year. UMASS and UAB presented some stiff challenges of their own, but nothing like what Wragge and McDermott present. The Huskers have typically struggled, though, versus teams that have more traditional post games. CU doesn't present that. I think there's also a chance that Leslee Smith could conversely pose some challenges for CU's interior defense as well, but in terms of how does NU handle McDermott and Wragge? The answer to that question will likely determine the outcome of the game.
Q: What are your overall impressions of the progress of the program and the direction it is heading in?
A: I think most, myself included, are very encouraged by the direction of the program. There's clearly more talent on the roster than we've seen in quite some time. They're still figuring how to play together and there are still some depth issues, but Miles just landed the first top 150 player in program history. Tai Webster was the most heralded recruit to make it on campus, much less the court since Tyronn Lue. It's still to be determined how good he can be, but the flashes are brilliant.
Going to watch games in a building like Pinnacle Bank Arena is still rather arresting. It's difficult to recognize a program that has been treated so poorly for so long. To see it be given the attention and backing that it needs to be successful is exciting, but I barely recognize this program. And it's great! I said to a buddy of mine several years ago that the thing we wanted more than anything was to have to worry about whether or not I would be able to get a ticket to the games. We're almost to that point, though I have season tickets, so as long as I pony up the cash, that's not going to be an issue. Now, it's just a matter of whether or not Miles can get the players in here to make it happen, but all signs are pointing in the right direction.
Q: Prediction time.
A: Well, I wish this wasn't the first road game of the season. They have yet to face a hostile crowd, and Sunday will definitely be that. This team seems to play better when they have something to prove. They'll have that on Sunday. I don't know how they'll respond. I think they'll play fairly well, but I don't know if if it will be enough. This will be the first game after a long road trip for Creighton and this game always brings a level of intensity that they may not be used to. They absolutely cannot get off to a slow start because it's unlikely that the Jays will. They must weather the storm of the first five to eight minutes of the game. If they're within five or so at the second media timeout, this one will likely go right to the end. You'll see the Huskers throw the kitchen sink at McDermott, but in the end, I don't think the Huskers are ready for this stage. They'll make this a game, maybe even make the Jays sweat, but Creighton pulls it out in the end. Let's say, 78-71, Jays by a touchdown.
Thanks to Dave for taking the time to answer my questions, and check out Corn Nation for my responses to his questions.
Tip-off at CenturyLink Center is set for 5 p.m. on Sunday.