It's easy to identify the prime point of emphasis for Creighton's basketball team when the Bluejays begin preseason practice Friday.
Check last season's NCAA defensive statistics. There's Creighton sitting at 242nd out of 338 Division I teams in scoring defense (69.7 points per game), 222nd in field-goal percentage defense (.441), 264th in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (36.1), 286th in blocked shots (2.3 per game) and 313th in steals (4.8).
“When we're in the bottom third in the country, that's not something to be proud about,” coach Greg McDermott said. “I know the players were disappointed in what they did defensively, and we have their attention.”
The thing is, McDermott and his staff were similarly bullish on trying to bolster the defense last season. Ditto for two years ago, when McDermott took over the program that Dana Altman had led for 16 seasons.
So, what's going to be different about this year?
“We don't want to have to outscore teams like we did last year,” forward Ethan Wragge said. “We know that when games get close and shots stop falling, we need to rely on our defense.
“We're going to focus on it this year until we get it where it needs to be.”
Wragge and several of his teammates agree that as good as last season was — 29 wins, including one in the NCAA tournament — it could have been better with some stops at key times.
“As far as we made it last year with such poor defensive numbers, we know we might have been able to go further if we had been better defensively,” center Gregory Echenique said. “We struggled in some close games last year because of our defense. We know we have to get better at it. We all have to buy into it a little more.”
A change in NCAA rules that allowed the coaches to have limited contact with the players during the summer could prove beneficial, McDermott said.
In the past, when coaches weren't allowed to be involved in workouts, players generally spent time honing their offensive games.
“I don't think any player particularly likes working on defensive drills,” McDermott said. “One part of it is learning the proper technique, the other is executing it properly. Guys have to be willing to do that with a lot of tenacity.”
A lot of the focus will be on helpside defense — which is exactly what it sounds like.
“We don't have the most athletic guys on the team, so we have to make up for it in other ways,” All-America forward Doug McDermott said. “It's huge that we have trust in one another, that if someone gets beat there will be a guy in a white or blue jersey behind them ready to help out.”
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While no number of drills can turn a below-average defensive player into a great one, brain power can certainly help.
“Defense is all a mindset,” Wragge said. “There are going to be guys that are more gifted with foot speed and lateral quickness, but the right mindset can help you be a better defender.”
“Defense is all about attitude,” he said. “The reps we do in practice can help us improve, but a lot of it comes down to having the right mindset and knowing where you have to be on the court.”
Echenique, last season's Missouri Valley defensive player of the year, gives the Bluejays a rock to build on in the middle. Guard Nevin Johnson, who redshirted last season, appears to have the physical skills that could make him a solid perimeter defender.
“Nevin is a good athlete, but he's still learning,” Greg McDermott said. “Just as our other young players are.”
Throughout his career, coach McDermott has valued defense. He now finds himself working with players who have grown up thinking offense first.
“In a perfect world, I think every coach would love to have a team that has a mindset that we're going to do everything we can to keep the ball out of the basket,” McDermott said. “But guys today grew up playing AAU ball. There are not a lot of 45-40 scores there. It's a wide-open offensive game.
“That takes a little bit of adjustment, and the reality is that we recruit guys that are skilled in passing it, shooting it and handling it. Sometimes you give up some things in order to get those guys. We don't have a bunch of great individual defensive players, which makes it important that our guys are in the right spots.”
If his players do that, McDermott said, then Creighton has a chance to be better defensively. If they don't, then the Bluejays might have to rely on an offense that ranked in the Top 10 nationally in scoring, field-goal shooting and assists.
“As a coach, I still believe the old saying that defense wins championships,” McDermott said. “But I'd much rather have a talented offensive team and try to figure out how to play defense than the other way around.”
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