Creighton men’s basketball coach Greg McDermott happily heaped praise for Steve Merfeld when asked about the assistant’s value to the team at a recent practice.

McDermott said his former Missouri Valley Conference head coaching rival had “a great basketball mind.” One of the reasons why McDermott gave the ex-Evansville boss the responsibility of tutoring the Bluejays’ big men, the guys Creighton has relied so heavily upon this season for production.

Then McDermott, a former Northern Iowa coach, paused suddenly. He just couldn’t resist an attempt at a funny.

“I was always impressed when he was the head coach at Evansville,” McDermott said. “How somebody that short could do such a good job with big guys.”

Fine, Greg. Pick on the little guy, the one who is well over a foot shorter than Creighton’s post players. But as the Bluejays prepare for the Valley tournament this weekend in St. Louis, they’ll tell you that Merfeld’s mentoring has been invaluable. Consider the conference awards handed out on Tuesday as proof.

Power forward Doug McDermott was the first freshman named first-team All-Valley in 59 years. McDermott, who led the Valley with eight double-doubles, also was named the league’s freshman and newcomer of the year.

Center Gregory Echenique, the ballyhooed sophomore transfer from Rutgers, also was named to the Valley all-newcomer team and all-defensive team after finishing second in the conference with 39 blocked shots.

“He’s been good,” an appreciative Doug McDermott said. “He works us hard every day. When we’re not doing stuff right, he’s got a way of saying it to us.”

He’ll even demonstrate, too. Merfeld can often be seen getting his feet and arms wide and rear low in a defensive stance when his bigs aren’t displaying proper technique.

Oh, no big deal, right? Every coach does that? Just keep in mind that Merfeld is trying to motivate, trying to teach with a hip that will be replaced later this month.

“March 28th,” he said. “No fun.”

Perhaps Merfeld, in his 24th season as a Division I coach, will just think about being at Creighton to cheer him up.

The man who once led a 15th-seeded Hampton squad to one of the most stunning upsets in NCAA tournament history, and former Bradley aide, said he used to admire Creighton from afar. He’s got no complaints now that he’s here in Omaha.

“It’s been great,” Merfeld said. “It’s a special place. You think it is from the outside looking in, but you don’t realize how special it is until you’re here. From President (John P.) Schlegel, (S.J.) to Dr. (John C.) Cernech to Bruce Rasmussen to Mac, it’s just been a great experience.”

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