After losing in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament last year, the Creighton men’s basketball team earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament finals. Matched up against Kansas State in the first round, the Bluejays saw their season end early in the tournament for the second straight year. This year, the Jays are back and looking to improve on their early exit from the NCAA Tournament the previous two seasons, both ending in defeat to lower-seeded teams.
However, this season marks one of change perhaps more than usual in many different facets of the team both and on and off the court.
The previous season was the last in a Bluejay uniform for guards Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas and Ronnie Harrell. A senior, Foster made the 2017 All-Big East First Team, averaging a team-high 19.8 points per game for the Jays.
Thomas continued to grow his game on both sides of the ball, averaging 15.1 points per game and winning Big East defensive player of the year for the second straight year. He declared for the NBA Draft and was taken No. 38 overall, now rostered by the Detroit Pistons.
Harrell was the utility man for the Bluejays last season, tasked with the ball-handler role if needed and often drawing tough assignments on defense. He opted to stay close to home for the final year of his college career, as he transferred to Denver for the upcoming season.
Creighton also lost a few other seniors in the rotation. Tyler Clement and Toby Hegner were two of the most trusted players by teammates and the coaching staff. Manny Suarez only played at Creighton for one season but played in multiple important games and often made the right decision on the court.
That’s a lot of production and minutes for the Bluejays to replace this year, but Creighton has a plethora of developing players to step into expanded roles this season, which Greg McDermott will try and figure out as the season moves along.
Now in his ninth year as Creighton coach, McDermott’s overall record stands at 187-94 including five NCAA tournament appearances and three wins in the tournament since taking over the program. He’s achieved 20 wins or more in all but one season.
Creighton has started out this season sticking to its tagline: “Let it fly.” Saturday’s home exhibition, the only one of the season for the Bluejays, saw them shoot 19-for-40 from the 3-point line against Winona State. Creighton won the game 101-57 with several encouraging performances by different players.
Junior forward Martin Krampelj suffered his third ACL tear in January last season after 19 appearances with the Jays. Before the injury, he was averaging 11.9 points per game and was leading the team with 8.1 rebounds. This season, the Big East preseason coaches’ poll named him an Honorable Mention All-Big East award winner. Despite three ACL tears over his career, the Jays’ physical big man continues to come back and try to produce for the team. While he only played 14 minutes in Saturday’s exhibition, he put up 10 points, five rebounds, and ten assists in that time.
Guards Mitch Ballock and Ty-Shon Alexander as well as center Jacob Epperson hope to do even more with their minutes than they did last year as freshman.
The trio of Bluejay sophomores are all expected move into a bigger role this season as well, as all three found playing time last year in some fashion.
“Ty-Shon, Mitch, Jake. They were freshman that played a secondary role on our team and now they’re playing a primary role,” said Coach McDermott.
Alexander played 19 minutes in Saturday’s exhibition, scoring a team-high 17 points.
“Last year I was pretty much playing the point guard role, learning some of the things I need to work on for next year,” Alexander said following the exhibition.
“Being with Marcus and [Khyri] last year in practice, they helped me out a lot to be confident and play my game, so it was a big jump.”
Creighton has received several reinforcements in the form of freshman and transfer students as well. Freshman guards Jett Canfield and Marcus Zegarowski will try to shore up back-up ball handling and shooting duties for the Bluejays. Freshman forward Christian Bishop and freshman center Samson Froling seem to factor into the rotation as well, playing 16 and 20 minutes respectively on Saturday.
Connor Cashaw, an experienced senior transfer from Rice, has already made his impact felt on this team with his work ethic and relationship with teammates.
Connor’s a great dude,” Alexander said. “He comes in with a lot of energy and pushes us every single practice.”
The Bluejays were picked to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the Big East in the coaches poll this season despite finishing fourth last season.
““I’ve never put much into preseason rankings. When we’ve been ranked second or third I’ve never put much into it. Especially this year, the league lost 19 of its top 30 scorers and every team is dealing with what we’re dealing with,” said McDermott.
“Are they ready for it? Well I think those questions are being asked at pretty much every place in the Big East.”
Creighton has several big games outside of Big East Conference play this season. They’ll take on Ohio State in Omaha on Nov. 15 as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games, a series of contests between Big East and Big 10 teams.
No. 4 Gonzaga visits to play on Dec. 1 before the Jays go to Lincoln to play Nebraska on Dec. 8. Creighton also takes on Oklahoma shortly before Big East play starts on Dec. 18.