Despite the fact that the academic fall semester concluded last week with final exams, the Creighton men’s basketball team continues to learn and face tests in its final preparations before Big East play.
The Bluejays picked up its eighth victory of the season with a 105-82 win against North Texas on Monday night at CenturyLink Center Omaha.
One of the players that may be learning the most is freshman Ronnie Harrell Jr. Listed as a guard on the roster sheet, Harrell played at the power forward position for the majority of Monday’s game because of foul trouble to starting forward Cole Huff.
The 6-foot-7 freshman proved he was up for the new task and played 25 minutes while tallying his first career double-double in a Bluejay uniform with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
He also added five assists and two steals, both career highs as well.
Coming into the season, Creighton coach Greg McDermott felt confident with his depth at the forward position, but because freshman forward Martin Krampelj suffered a season-ending knee injury and sophomore forward Toby Hegner played limited minutes in multiple games with an ankle injury, Harrell moved into a new role.
McDermott is aware that Harrell is not proven at the forward position, but he believes that his freshman can contribute in multiple ways.
“His teammates are pointing him in the right direction and defensively he’s got a little fight to him,” McDermott said. “His length makes a difference on some defensive plays and on the backboards it really helps us.
“This is good for him in some ways that this has happened because he’s kind of gotten thrown into the fire and he’s going to have more confidence as he comes back for Big East play.”
After sitting out last season while redshirting, Harrell also battled the injury bug during the early stages of this season. The Denver native suffered a foot injury in Creighton’s exhibition game against Upper Iowa and did not play the first five games of the season.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster,” Harrell said. “Just coming back from the injury I had to get back into the swing of things, so now I’m trying to earn coach’s trust that he can put me on the floor in big-time moments.”
The freshman finished 7-of-12 from the free-throw line and 3-of-9 from the field on Monday.
“Ronnie’s a better shooter than what he showed tonight both from the free-throw line and from the field and he has to continue to work on that especially as Toby gets healthy and we slide him back more into the small forward,” McDermott said. “Our spacing’s critical to what we do offensively so he has to be a weapon. Obviously, you saw what he can do off the dribble and with his decisions with passes. He gives us another element there that’s really positive for our team.”
Harrell was one of five Bluejays to with more than 10 points and one of three to etch a new career-high scoring total. Senior center Geoffrey Groselle led Creighton with a career-high 27 points, making 8-of-9 shots from the field and 11-of-14 from the free-throw line.
Backup center Zach Hanson shot a perfect 6-of-6 from the field and finished with a career-high 13 points.
“We have a fifth-year senior and a junior in there that have played a lot of basketball for us,” McDermott said. “I think they can score, I think they can draw fouls, which, what happened in the first half needs to happen more often where we were aggressive. We were aggressive off the dribble, we were aggressive in the post and we were good with getting the ball into the post.”
The Bluejays never trailed during Monday’s game and opened up a 12-point lead six minutes into the game after a jumper by junior point guard Maurice Watson Jr. Creighton led by as many as 16 in the first half and took a 54-39 lead into the locker room.
As a team, Creighton shot 24-of-29 at the free-throw line in the first half. Overall, the Jays finished at 72.5 percent (29-of-40).
North Texas trimmed the lead to 13 points twice during the first two minutes of the second half, but never got any closer as the Jays held a lead as large as 25 points late in the game.
Watson and Huff each finished in double figures. Watson had 16 points to go along with seven rebounds and zero turnovers and Huff scored 13 in only 15 minutes because of foul trouble.
Creighton entered Monday’s game shooting 40.1 percent from 3-point territory, but managed only four makes in 17 attempts against the Mean Green.
“We didn’t shoot it very well tonight,” McDermott said. “For us to score 105 points on a night when we didn’t shoot it well is a credit to our guys and their decision making.”
The Bluejays did not shoot for a high percentage from beyond the 3-point line, but missed only five two-point attempts in the second half and converted 20 layups or dunks during 40 minutes of game time as they surpassed the 100-point threshold for the second time this season.
Through 12 games, Creighton ranks second in the Big East averaging 86.2 points per game, but also at the bottom in points against, giving up an even 75 points per contest. The Bluejays are also second in the league in field-goal percentage (49.7 percent), but rank last in field-goal percentage defense, allowing the opposition to shoot 44.1 percent from the field.
“Our ball-screen defense needs to be better,” Groselle said. “Without a doubt teams see that and they try to exploit it every game and we need to get better. With our guards we need to get better guarding the dribble without fouling. I don’t know how many team fouls we had today, but it wasn’t good.”
North Texas made 45 percent of its shots from the field and made 23 free throws while attempting 32.
J-Mychal Reese scored 20 points to lead four different players with more than 10 points.
“We know what we need to fix and we know that we can get better,” Groselle said. “So we’re going to improve and move forward.”
The Bluejays have one more game to prepare before the start of conference play on New Year’s Eve at St. John’s.
Creighton hosts Coppin State on Monday night at 8:15 p.m.