There’s a balcony extending from Greg McDermott’s office that overlooks Creighton’s practice floor. Nothing escapes a veteran coach’s eye from that vantage point.
McDermott stood up there a month ago, watching his inexperienced and unproven squad conduct a 40-minute, game-like scrimmage. The action was sloppy at times and defenders occasionally lacked focus — much like CU’s hot-and-cold regular season debut Tuesday.
But there were glimpses of potential. Matter of fact, McDermott made a point to specifically acknowledge one midway through that session.
He called Damien Jefferson over. The lanky and athletic 6-foot-5 sophomore stood near midcourt, looking up at the ninth-year CU coach while gulping up a couple of deep breaths of air.
The message was simple: If you defend and rebound, everything else will take care of itself.
McDermott said the same thing a couple of weeks back when he sat down for a one-on-one meeting with Jefferson, the New Mexico transfer who redshirted last season.
And at least for one night — during Creighton’s 78-67 victory over Western Illinois — it appears that the advice is being followed. Jefferson made arguably the biggest impact for the Jays, assuring CU avoided a major upset and extended its home-opener winning streak to 24 games.
“Before I entered the game, I was just thinking about the message that Coach Mac gave me,” Jefferson said. “He believes that I could possibly be one of the best rebounders on this team and one of the best defensive players on this team. Obviously, that’s the head coach talking to me. I want to do everything he tells me to do.”
The Jays certainly benefited from that mentality Tuesday.
Jefferson pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds — that’s the most boards for a player making his Creighton debut in at least 43 years. He played an integral role in energizing the Jays’ defense after halftime, helping to hold versatile scorer Isaac Johnson to three points on 1 of 7 shooting in the final 20 minutes.
The announced crowd of 16,449 at the CHI Health Center gave Jefferson a healthy ovation when he was subbed out early in the second half.
“It’s huge,” McDermott said of Jefferson’s spark.
But now McDermott wants to see more of that.
Jefferson hasn’t always been as active in practice this preseason without the ball in his hands. That’s understandable for a player who was a high-volume scorer in high school, according to McDermott. The mentality can change, though.
The Jays undoubtedly need all the stability they can get. That was evident Tuesday.
Forcing the issue a bit offensively, they trailed by as many as eight points in the first half against a team picked to finish last in the Summit League. They never really found an answer for Western Illinois sophomore guard Kobe Webster, who finished with 24 points. They had a woeful night at the foul line (9 of 20).
But Creighton put together a 15-possession stretch early in the second half where it produced points on 11 trips down the floor. CU extended its two-point lead to 68-52 during that span, and the Leathernecks (0-1) never got closer than eight points after that.
“With our youth and inexperience ... there’s going to be some bumps in the road,” McDermott said. “There’s going to be some peaks and valleys, and I think you saw that during the course of the game.”
Perhaps Jefferson — despite not actually taking on an enhanced role at this level, either — can bring constant energy to help the Jays navigate their early growing pains.
He’s definitely looking to help. That was his motivation as he sat out last year, working hard behind the scenes to prepare for a moment like Wednesday.
Now he’ll try to replicate it.
“I’m just excited to get back out there with my teammates — and not just being on the red (scout) team in practice,” Jefferson said. “I wanted to come out here and show the fans and my coach what I could do.”