Creighton’s basketball coaches have always liked what they were selling.
A first-class university. A successful program that makes the postseason with regularity. A vibrant city. A passionate fan base. A first-class facility.
In the past, coaches say, membership in the Missouri Valley hamstrung Creighton in its pursuit of big-time talent. But the move to the Big East, with its lucrative television contract, had many observers expecting a big jump in recruiting — especially when prospects got a look at the new practice facility the school is building on the east end of campus.
More than one chat-room coach proclaimed how big-time prospects would be flocking to sign with the Bluejays.
But as the program heads into the second full week of September, the Bluejays have yet to receive a commitment from a player for the recruiting class of 2014. Coach Greg McDermott said there’s no reason to panic, that he and his staff knew this process would take time.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” assistant coach Patrick Sellers said.
Yet one detects at least a tinge of disappointment as the coaches talk about the impact of the new Big East on Creighton’s recruiting. They are finding themselves still pedaling uphill until the Bluejays at least start bouncing basketballs in Big East games or their new practice facility is more than just a beehive of construction activity.
“Until kids see us playing on TV on Fox Sports 1, and until kids can walk into that new practice facility and are able to shoot baskets and see the unbelievable locker room and team room and weight room and academic facility, it’s a lot of hot air being tossed around,” assistant coach Steve Lutz said. “It’s the American way: Kids want to smell it and feel it and kick the tires.”
The practice facility, just north of D.J. Sokol Arena, is set to open next spring. Creighton will play its first Big East game on Dec. 31 at home against Marquette.
McDermott and his coaches will be back on the road beginning Monday to start a recruiting period that stretches all the way until the start of the November signing period.
Four prospects visited last month. One, 6-foot-2 point guard Isaiah Wright of Boise, Idaho, has since committed to Utah. The other three — 6-5 shooting guard J.P. Macura of Lakeville, Minn.; 6-1 point guard Riley LaChance of Brookfield, Wis.; and 6-7 forward Leon Gilmore of Manuel, Texas — remain uncommitted.
Most of Creighton’s efforts during the three-week July evaluation period were spent at familiar stops: Chicago, Orlando, Minneapolis, Dallas, Las Vegas.
Bluejay coaches will try to stretch the program’s recruiting footprint in the coming weeks, McDermott said, to take advantage of Sellers’ background.
Added to the staff on May 1, Sellers has spent almost all of his playing and coaching career on the East Coast.
“The East Coast stuff is going to take some time,” McDermott said. “It takes time to build relationships. Coach Sellers has really only been here for two months. You almost have to be involved with kids for a year-plus, but we’ll spend some time out there in the fall and again there in the winter.”
There’s no question, coaches say, that the move to the Big East has opened doors in recruiting.
“You take 17,000 fans and combine that with the Big East, and kids are excited and intrigued and want to learn a little more about you,” assistant coach Darian DeVries said. “Almost every phone call you make now, they want to hear more about what you have to offer.”
In the past, DeVries said, “there was a certain pecking order” in recruiting.
“You wouldn’t even contact some kids,” he said, “because you didn’t want to waste three months of your time knowing that at the end of the day you wouldn’t be in a position to get a guy because of the league you were in.”
DeVries said McDermott is stressing that no prospect is off limits now. “He has told us if we think a kid is good enough, make a phone call and see how far you can take it.”
But Lutz, who has served as recruiting coordinator since joining McDermott’s staff four years ago, said one misconception is that the move to the new Big East deepened the recruiting pool for the Bluejays. In reality, Lutz said, it shrunk it, and Creighton is facing more intense recruiting pressure for those players.
Lutz held his fingers in a wide circle.
“When we were in the Valley, this was the size of our recruiting pool,” he said. “And the sharks were swimming around it.”
He then reduced the size of the circle considerably
“This is the size of our recruiting pool in the new league,” he said. “And there’s a lot more sharks swimming around it.”
When it was suggested that, given the cutthroat nature of recruiting, some of the sharks might actually be in the pool, Lutz shot back one of those “you’re-doing-all-the-talking” glances.
“It used to be we’d recruit from the top 50 to 300, and now we’re recruiting from the top 25 to 150,” Lutz said. “There are exceptions to every rule — Doug McDermott, Kyle Korver, Anthony Tolliver. Guys that are not necessarily ranked in the top 150 in the country but end up having great careers at Creighton and in the NBA.”
Greg McDermott has said repeatedly that the move to the new conference will not force him to change the culture of his program. He will continue to search for high-character players with high basketball IQs.
Sellers is convinced that will happen, that players can be found without sacrificing the program’s principles.
“We’re going to get some good players,” he said. “Our main core has always been the Midwest, but I think we’re going to get some guys from the east and from out west. We’re going to get our share of good players.
“It’s just going to take some time. Once guys start seeing who we are and where we are and our fan base, this thing is going to take off. People still don’t know a lot about us. They still have the same kind of stereotypes about Nebraska that I had when I came here. That’s going to change.”
McDermott, too, is convinced. He liked what he was selling before. He likes it even more now.
“There aren’t a lot holes,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of finding the right guys.”