Things have rarely been finer around Creighton basketball, but there are two huge unknowns heading into next year: Will Doug McDermott be back? And, how will the Jays fair in the Big East? World-Herald staff writer Steven Pivovar breaks down what lies ahead.
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LET'S GET RIGHT TO THE POINT
Having a starter return at point guard is a big bonus for any college basketball team, but especially one facing some of the uncertainties that Creighton has next season. Austin Chatman started his sophomore season hounded by questions about how he would replace three-year starter Antoine Young. He ended it having proven himself a capable distributor and solid on-ball, perimeter defender. Chatman finished the season with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while averaging 7.4 points per game. Chatman finished with more assists than turnovers in 22 of the Bluejays' 36 games. He shot 42.2 percent from 3-point range but needs to work on his ability to finish around the basket. He was one of the few players on the team who could create his own shot, but had difficulty converting in-close opportunities against more physical guards. Another priority as he prepares for his junior season is continuing to add strength to match up against bigger, stronger guards in the new Big East. Coach Greg McDermott said he doesn't want to scale back Creighton's attacking offensive style, and having the ball in the hands of a push-it-up-the-floor point guard such as Chatman goes a long way in assuring the Bluejays can maintain the efficiency that characterized the past two teams.
TALENT UP FRONT READY TO STEP UP
Creighton's frontcourt will lose its most dominant defensive player in Gregory Echenique, and could lose its most efficient offensive player in Doug McDermott. That would produce two big holes up front, but the Bluejays aren't hitting any panic buttons yet. Will Artino's strong showing in the second half of the season gives Creighton a big man with a slightly different skill set. A solid passer and effective offensive rebounder, the 6-foot-11 Artino must continue to add bulk to handle the pounding he'll take inside. Ethan Wragge will continue to be a tough matchup even with the move to the new league, as his perimeter shooting skills make him a tough assignment for opposing big men. Wragge also has shown growth as an in-the-paint defender the past two seasons, but must become a more consistent rebounder with the loss of Echenique and possibly McDermott. It's been two seasons since 7-footer Geoff Groselle has played meaningful minutes, but there's no indication anyone in the program has given up on him. Groselle continued to build his strength this past season with a rigorous weight-training program and has the chance to provide some big-body assistance inside. A positive sign was that Groselle continued to make strides in practice despite his limited playing time through the unenviable task of matching up daily against Echenique. In a perfect world, incoming freshmen Toby Hegner and Zach Hanson would spend their first seasons in the program as redshirts, but that might not be an option if McDermott goes pro.
NOTHING BEATS WINNING
Most of the players Creighton will be counting on in next season's transition to the new conference have been a part of an unprecedented run of success the previous two seasons. The Bluejays followed their 29 wins in 2011-12 by notching 28 victories last season. The 57 wins are the most in a two-season span in school history, and have fostered a winning attitude and approach. No one is downplaying that difference in challenges that Creighton will face in its move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the new Big East, but it's better to make that jump with guys who find losing unacceptable. That likely will be one of the first things the veterans pass along to newcomers in early June.
DEFENSE NO LONGER A FOREIGN CONCEPT
The Bluejays set out last season to shore up one of their deficiencies from the previous season and, statistically, they made marked improvement. Creighton went from ranking 242nd nationally in scoring defense in 2011-12 to 83rd last season, from 222nd to 77th in field-goal percentage defense and from 264th to 56th in 3-point percentage defense. Two of the Bluejays' more memorable late-season wins came in the Valley tournament championship against Wichita State and in the NCAA tournament against Cincinnati as Creighton beat a couple of defensive-minded teams at their own game. Much work still must be done, but at least the players have set a defensive foundation that could aid them in their move to a more grind-it-out league. If nothing else, the Bluejays' improvement on defense will require a new set of practice gear, as the coaching staff had the numbers “222” put on the front of each jersey and on the seat of each pair of shorts to remind the players they had to get better at the defensive end.
COMING UP SHORT ON THE ATHLETICISM SCALE
Creighton prided itself the past two seasons for the success it achieved despite not having overwhelming athleticism. CU's best player, Doug McDermott, might lack some measurables, but he had enough skill and savvy to put together back-to-back seasons that ended with him earning consensus first-team All-America recognition. The formula that worked well in the Missouri Valley might not cut it in the new Big East, where every opponent will feature a roster full of bigger, stronger, faster and, in some cases, tougher athletes than the ones that the Bluejays will put on the court. One of Creighton's more glaring weaknesses has been the inability of most of its players to get their own shots. In the Valley, the Bluejays often got around that deficiency by relying on their surgical passing and transition games. Creighton figures the move to the new conference will pay dividends in attracting some better athletes into the program, but the question remains whether the Bluejays will be able to hold their own in the interim before the fruits of a couple of recruiting cycles kick in.
WHO EMERGES AS THE LEADER OF THE PACK?
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The departures of Gregory Echenique, Grant Gibbs and possibly Doug McDermott will not only impact the team's production but also its direction. Echenique and McDermott were more leadership-by-example type guys, but it was Gibbs who set the team's dance card both on and off the court. There is the slightest of chances that the guard could apply and receive a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA. If he doesn't, the Bluejays will have to look to others to provide the glue that keeps the best of teams together when times get tough. Senior Jahenns Manigat has exhibited the enthusiasm to fill the on-court role, but it's uncertain if he could take on the responsibility of being the locker-room policeman who keeps everything running smoothly. One of the beauties of collegiate athletics is that many times players who have exhibited no desire to be leaders in the past take the reins when others leave the program. There are no guarantees that will happen, and going into next season with a limited sense of direction could be unsettling given the new territory that the program is about to blaze.
WEAK SPOTS ON THE PERIMETER
Scouring the videotape might lead to a different conclusion, but a first-impression glance at Creighton's new Big East opponents indicates a gap exists between the guards and wings the Bluejays will put on the court and what the competition has to offer. The coaches believe junior college transfer Devin Brooks has a chance to make an immediate impact on the perimeter with his ability to knock down 3-point shots as well as drive the ball. The latter skill especially will be needed on a team short of shot creators. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Zierden has a year of experience in the program, but must show he has the lateral quickness to keep up with the athletes the Bluejays will be exposed to in the new conference. Incoming freshman Darian Harris is knocking down 5,000 calories a day in an attempt to get his weight up to 200 pounds by the time he shows up on campus in late May. Austin Chatman must get stronger to endure the pounding he's sure to take at the point, while two-year starter Manigat has to shake the inconsistency that plagued him at times during his junior season. The same holds true for returners Avery Dingman and Nevin Johnson, two of the better athletes on the team. Their inability to put things together kept each from taking on greater responsibility last season. The likely loss of Gibbs puts pressure on both players to make strides in the offseason.
NO NIGHTS OFF
Creighton's Valley schedule was a grind, but it might pale to what the Bluejays will be facing in playing 18 games against the likes of Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova. In the past, Creighton had the luxury of zeroing in on its power conference matchups in the nonconference. The Bluejays masked some of their weaknesses in those one-shot exposures, but that won't be the case when the entire conference schedule is made up of power conference opponents. Creighton's nonconference schedule also will feature its share of challenges, leading to concerns about how this group will handle a November-to-March diet of competition that will be several notches above what the Bluejays have been used to. The Bluejays saved each of the past two seasons by overcoming some February struggles with strong runs down the stretch. If Creighton encounters a similar downturn next season, will the Bluejays be able to pull out of the nosedive?
WILL HE STAY OR WILL HE GO?
When Doug McDermott stepped on to campus in June 2010, most folks figured his chances of sticking around for five seasons far outweighed the possibility of him leaving after three. That was before he avoided a redshirt season and emerged as a freshman star, then followed that up by becoming Creighton's first consensus first-team All-American. Now, McDermott is pondering whether to return for his senior season or enter the NBA draft. If McDermott and his family receive enough assurance between now and April 28 that he will be a first-round draft pick, all signs point to him being gone. If not, he'll probably return for Creighton's first season in the new Big East. His decision will clear up the biggest question mark the Bluejays face heading into the offseason. Greg McDermott has said it is no secret that he'll be a better coach if his son returns for one last season. There is no doubt the Bluejays will be a better team if Doug McDermott decides to keep his talents close to the banks of the Missouri River rather than taking them to South Beach or some other NBA outpost.
THE GREAT UNKNOWN
New cities, new opponents and new challenges will await Creighton at every turn. The coaches and players knew all the best places to stay and eat as they made their way around the Missouri Valley. Most of the players could find their way blindfolded from the locker rooms to the courts in Terre Haute or Normal. The move to the new conference not only will leave the Bluejays facing countless on-court questions, but also plenty of logistical ones as well. They include everything from figuring out where to stay to where to eat to how long it will take to get from the hotel to the arena. Doesn't seem like that big of a deal? It is when the bus arrives a half-hour late and everyone's pregame routine is thrown off. From a basketball standpoint, Creighton faces a season of preparing for nine new conference opponents. Each road game will expose the Bluejays to unfamiliar venues. Each scouting report will represent a new chapter that will require extra study by the players and added breakdowns by the coaches. It shapes up to be a season without a comfort zone for everyone involved.
HOW MUCH MUSCLE MILK CAN ONE GUY DRINK?
The pressure is on you, Dan Bailey. The Bluejays have made some noticeable strides in three seasons of work under the school's strength and conditioning coach. He now must accelerate the process of getting his charges bigger, stronger and faster to ready them for basketball versions of hand-to-hand combat with their new conference opponents. The Creighton players have watched enough of the old Big East to know that physical play is part of the DNA of the players from the seven schools moving to the new league. Xavier and Butler also are capable of mixing it up. While Creighton probably didn't get enough credit last season for toughening up, the Bluejays still tend to rely more on finesse than muscle. To put it in terms familiar to even the most casual Creighton fan, the Bluejays will have to be ready for 18 nights of Wichita State-style pressure rather than just a couple.
THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB
There already are whispers in some corners of Bluejay Nation about whether that phrase fits Greg McDermott. The eight seasons he's spent in the Valley at Northern Iowa and Creighton have produced five trips to the NCAA tournament. His four seasons at Iowa State produced 18 conference wins and a seventh-place tie as the Cyclones' best Big 12 finish. His critics in Ames cited recruiting shortcomings as the key reason for the lack of success. McDermott's best recruit at Creighton just happened to live in the same house as the coach for the first 18 years of his life. Can the coach find and sign the type of players Creighton will need to replace Doug McDermott and hold its own in the new league? McDermott believes he can, and that he won't have to stray far from the present recruiting model to find them. He says he won't repeat the mistakes he made at Ames, that the culture he's been able to establish in three seasons at Creighton will allow him to avoid the desperate moves that doomed him at Iowa State. Many Creighton fans expect some bumps as the Bluejays move to the new Big East, but will that patience hold if lower-division finishes rather than trips to the NCAA tournament become the norm?