There’s no doubt the buzz around this year’s Creighton basketball team is the biggest it’s been since Doug McDermott’s senior season in 2013-14. And for good reason: The Bluejays return four of five starters from last year’s team and have added some talented newcomers to the equation.
The buzz surrounding the Bluejays isn’t just in Omaha, either. The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll has the Jays ranked No. 22. It’s the third time in program history the Bluejays have been ranked in the AP preseason poll. Creighton was also recognized in the USA Today preseason coaches’ poll, coming in at No. 23.
Additionally, the Jays are picked to finish third in the Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll, only behind Villanova and Xavier, who are both ranked in the preseason Top 10. After being picked to finish ninth in the Big East the past two seasons, the players are using the recognition as a measuring stick to how far the program has come in the two years of the post-Doug McDermott era.
“We’ve been picked ninth two years in a row … the fact that our league has given us a little bit more respect, I think is a signal that we played pretty well last year, we returned some good pieces, and people are aware of a few of the pieces we’re going to add to the puzzle,” said senior point guard Maurice Watson.
“It’s nice, especially from a few years ago when we were ranked ninth or tenth,” said senior guard Isaiah Zierden. “But it’s not something we need to be too focused on. I think it’s a great bar for us early, but we need to stay hungry and not feel entitled.”
The Bluejays finished 20-15 overall last season and took sixth in the Big East after finishing 9-9 in conference play.
After losing to Seton Hall in their first game of the Big East tournament last season, the Jays missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid, but made it into to the National Invitation Tournament field. Creighton won its first two games in the NIT, but had its season ended in the quarterfinals of the tournament against BYU.
Coach Greg McDermott thinks the postseason experience from last season will pay dividends for the team this year.
“As I look back on it, it was very important. The motivation you draw from that as you enter your postseason workouts is really critical,” said McDermott. “For our young players in particular, it was great to have that experience and get back to postseason play… it was a good consolation prize for a team that really needed a taste of that.”
Unlike in previous seasons, Creighton has the benefit of returning experienced players. Six of the players likely to crack the Bluejays’ rotation are upperclassmen, and McDermott is pleased with the way the veterans on his team have stepped up in the preseason.
“There’s a lot of leadership on this team, and we’ve been able to maybe move a little bit faster as a result of that,” said McDermott.
McDermott also acknowledged he has noticed a sense of urgency and work ethic in this particular team.
“Some teams you coach, you get a sense that they’re just trying to get through practice,” said McDermott. “This team has attacked practice. They’re not watching the clock, they’re hungry to get better and they’ve worked pretty hard to make that happen.”
The Bluejays’ biggest strength as a team entering this season is undeniably their backcourt depth. The Jays return all three of their starting guards from last season and have added some newcomers who are poised to make a big impact.
Creighton returns their outspoken leader on and off the court last season, Maurice Watson After mulling over a possible leap to the NBA in the offseason, Watson is back and will be running the show on offense again for the Bluejays. Watson averaged 15.9 points per game and was 11th in the country last year in assists per game with 6.7.
After being recognized as a second team All-Big East selection last season, Watson received more recognition this preseason by being named to the watch list for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award.
Watson is joined in the backcourt by junior guard Marcus Foster, who has all the talent and tools to potentially step up as the Bluejays best player on both sides of the floor. Foster, who sat out last season after transferring from Kansas State, is a former All-Big 12 performer, who averaged 14.1 points per game in his time with the Wildcats.
The Bluejays also return sophomore guard Khyri Thomas, who started 28 games last season as a true freshman, and Isaiah Zierden, who started all 31 games he appeared in last season. Thomas is likely to start alongside Watson and Foster, pushing Zierden to a reserve role. Zierden offers the Bluejays one of the best scoring options off the bench in the Big East, as he averaged 10.2 points per game last season and shot 40.3 percent.
Sophomore guard Ronnie Harrell Jr., who appeared in 29 games for the Jays last season, rounds out Creighton’s experienced backcourt. Expect a pair of talented newcomers, freshmen guards Kobe Paras and Davion Mintz, to compete for minutes in the backcourt rotation as well.
While backcourt depth promises to be key for Creighton, questions remain in the Bluejays’ frontcourt.
The biggest wildcard the Bluejays have on their roster is Justin Patton, a 7-foot redshirt freshman who played his high school ball down the street at Omaha Central. Patton, a top-50 ranked recruit out of high school, spent last season adding weight and polishing his game, and now is ready to come in and make an impact for the Jays.
“I really want to contribute any way I can,” said Patton. “Whether that be rebounding, blocking shots, pushing the tempo on offense and being someone we can rely on defensively.”
The hype surrounding Patton’s debut for the Bluejays is evident, as he was one of the 20 players named to the preseason watch list for the 2017 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award. Whether his play this season will live up to the hype is crucial for the Jays, whose woes in the Big East the past two seasons are largely because of a lack of frontcourt size.
A big reason for the uncertainty in the Bluejays frontcourt is because of a pair of injuries.
Senior forward Cole Huff — who started 23 games for the Bluejays last season and was the second on the team in points and rebounds with 11.3 ppg and 5.1 rpg — suffered a knee injury late last season that required offseason surgery and kept him out for the majority of the offseason. Huff has been fully cleared to return to the floor, and the Bluejays are hoping that he will return to the same form he had last season, when he was one of the team’s best scoring options.
Senior center Zach Hanson is also battling back from an offseason knee surgery. Hanson appeared in Creighton’s exhibition game against Wayne State on Friday, but still is battling toward being 100 percent healthy. Hanson gave the Bluejays a viable option at the center position off the bench last season.
The other Bluejays likely to receive minutes in the frontcourt rotation are freshman forward Martin Krampelj and junior forward Toby Hegner. Krampelj played in seven games for the Jays last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in December. Hegner appeared in 33 games for the Bluejays last season and averaged 5.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
As for the Bluejays’ expectations for this season, one thing is clear: they want to be the first Creighton team to make the NCAA Tournament since 2014.
“Not many of us have made the NCAA Tournament,” said Huff. “We haven’t been there for two years now as a program, and we want to get back there and make a run while we’re there too.”
The Bluejays kick off their season on Friday night against University of Missouri-Kansas City at the CenturyLink Center at 8 p.m.