First-round NCAA tournament exits in back-to-back seasons haven’t persuaded Creighton coach Greg McDermott to deviate from his offensive style.
The Bluejays’ up-tempo, high-octane attack was twice neutralized on the biggest stage in losses to Rhode Island in 2017 and Kansas State in 2018. Both opponents controlled the game’s pace by draining their shot clock then limiting Creighton’s aggressiveness by extending their defense and physically imposing their will.
But after studying those defeats, McDermott doesn’t think the Jays should start adopting new tactics. There are flaws to any style.
The best way to avoid future disappointing outcomes?
CU needs to double down on its principles.
“We enjoy what we’re doing,” McDermott said. “Our guys like playing in this system and I think our fans enjoy watching it. We’ve just got to get a little better at it.”
It’s really the next major challenge facing McDermott and his program.
How do they replicate their regular-season potency in March?
They have produced 3-point shooting displays, completed milestone upsets and rallied for victories. Just not in March. Those highlights have eluded CU in the NCAA tournament : The Bluejays haven’t advanced past the second round under McDermott.
But the message seems clear: Stay the course.
In McDermott’s mind, the Jays were one piece away the past two seasons , and that missing piece both times was sitting in street clothes on the bench. Season-ending injuries to Maurice Watson (2017) and Martin Krampelj (2018) altered CU’s trajectory.
But those also reinforced an assessment McDermott has had for a while: Creighton needs to develop better depth.
That way, the Jays can withstand injuries. And they can turn to other options if opponents are hounding their No. 1 scorer. And it can stay committed to its system even in uncomfortable situations.
He doesn’t want to drastically change things based on a couple of results.
“Whether we win or lose one game in the NCAA tournament is not going to define us,” McDermott said. “What’s going to define us is how we play, how we approach the game, the culture of our program. And we think, if you keep knocking on the door, sooner or later, you’ll get to kick it in.”
Here is an early preview of what 2018-19 could look like for the Jays:
Reasons for optimism
1. Jays are well connected
The traits that aided Creighton during rough patches last year appear to have carried over into the offseason. The Jays have built a strong culture — which should serve this team well as it evolves this fall. The players don’t want the standard to drop.
The tone set by the seniors — transfer Connor Cashaw and Kaleb Joseph — and juniors — Martin Krampelj and Davion Mintz — will be crucial. Unselfishness is what seems to be central to their message. That’s evident by the way CU runs its offense in practice.
“I think with this team, the ball is going to move as well as any of the teams that we’ve had here,” McDermott said. “They are so willing to make that extra pass. I think it’ll be a fun brand of basketball for our fans to watch.”
2. The frontcourt
At the time of Krampelj’s season-ending injury, he was the Jays’ most valuable player according to analytics. He was third in the Big East in player efficiency rating, third in win shares per 40 minutes and third in plus-minus. He has to get healthy again, but the 6-foot-9 forward has a chance to build on last year’s breakout.
And this time, he will have a sidekick.
Sophomore Jacob Epperson, a 6-11 center from Australia, showed promise during the final third of last season. He began the season as a redshirt, focusing on recovering from surgery and building muscle mass. Then he stepped on the floor.
Epperson averaged 6.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 14.0 minutes per game.
That’s two above-the-rim threats who can wear down opponents with their speed on the break and fracture defenses with their leaping ability on the back end of ball screens. They can both shoot from deep, too. Not many teams have a big-man duo with this much potential.
3. The Big East is reloading
It’s basically a new league. Nearly every team is facing a roster reshuffling, though Creighton may end up having the most unproven core of the bunch.
Still, the conference has lost a ton of veteran talent. Of the Big East’s top 30 scorers, only 11 are returning. Villanova is without its top four options. Xavier will replace its top three players. CU, too. Seton Hall saw four influential seniors graduate. Butler and Providence have to find new go-to guys.
The Jays have question marks; so do their peers. The Big East is as open as it has been since the 2013 reconstruction. All teams will begin the season thinking they have a legit chance.
“Trying to pick the league this year, I think, is going to be very difficult because you just how some of the newcomers are going to produce,” McDermott said. “There are some freshmen who played important roles for their teams last year — our guys are included in that. But how do they handle being a primary option, instead of a secondary option?”
Reasons for pessimism
1. Physical perimeter play
Marcus Foster was a dynamic scorer, who at 6-foot-3 could leap 38 inches and dart by defenders with a quick first step. Khyri Thomas was 200 pounds of muscle l and his 6-10 wingspan made him difficult for opposing guards to match up against. That wing duo wasn’t often matched.
The Jays need more Big East bodies like that. They will have them, eventually.
Ty-Shon Alexander understands what they will be up against next season.
“I’ve been spending more time in the weight room than I ever have,” Alexander said. “I’ve got to be faster, stronger. I do feel great — like I’ve never felt before. … I have to get to that Big East standard so nobody else can push me around.”
But can that transformation occur with just one offseason?
Creighton has 11 scholarship players eligible next season. Seven are sophomores or freshmen. Krampelj has half a season under his belt. Senior Kaleb Joseph played 116 minutes last year. Essentially, the Jays have two players who have consistent starting experience in Mintz and Cashaw, who doesn’t join the program until August.
The question facing CU is not about talent. The Jays brought in a top -25 recruiting class two years ago and a top -35 class this past season. The primary concern is whether Creighton can develop those youngsters quickly enough. CU will find itself in situations in which the game is on the line and it is in need of a playmaker to make the difference. Who steps up? Who’s ready?
3. Jays missed their window
There are a few teams who consistently land in the NCAA tournament and build rosters capable of deep March runs. The powerhouses. You know the names: Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State … It doesn’t matter who they lose. They remain stable and among the elite.
Creighton is aiming for that status. Inevitably, over time, the Jays will experience dips and valleys in their pursuit of sustained success. The reloading process can sometimes take more than just one offseason.
Is this one of those lulls? Over the past two years, the Jays had an All-America caliber point guard (Watson), a first-round NBA draft pick (Justin Patton), a second-round selection (Thomas) and a two-time All-Big East first-team player (Foster). Perhaps Creighton must retreat a bit before it charges forward once again.
1. Can CU keep pace on 3s?
The Jays are going to shoot them, that’s for sure. They will have other elements within their offense next year , such as the aforementioned potential of their athletic big men. But within a scheme that emphasizes spacing, CU will inevitably find ways to create open looks from behind the arc. It will be up to the players to knock them down.
When the Jays made three consecutive NCAA tournament s in 2012, 2013 and 2014, they ranked third, second and first in the country, respectively, in 3-point shooting. Two seasons ago, Creighton was 17th nationally.
This past year? Creighton ranked 75th, making 37.2 percent of its 3s. And the Jays are now moving on without their three best 3-point shooters from last season. Foster and Thomas both made better than 40 percent of their long-range attempts. Toby Hegner, at 37.9 percent, was third -best.
CU has capable shooters. But they have to prove themselves.
2. Mintz’s development?
To compete with the top teams, Creighton needs consistency from its point guard s. That has been evident since Watson’s season-ending injury 18 months ago. Perhaps Mintz is the guy who can deliver.
He has some agility and hops in his 6-3 frame. He is clever at finding ways to penetrate defenses, he is difficult to guard in the open floor and he might be Creighton’s best get-to-the-foul-line guy. Can he put it all together while also managing the pieces in a fast-paced offense?
Mintz has the right mentality. He has made a point this offseason to prepare himself for a greater leadership role. He has, after all, more in-game experience than anyone on this roster.
Alexander has moved back to shooting guard. Joseph might project better to the wing. And Marcus Zegarowski is a freshman. So there will be a lot on Mintz’s shoulders.
3. Can CU stay healthy?
The past two seasons have been plagued by what-ifs. Creighton was a top-10 team two seasons ago. Then Watson went down and the Jays skidded into the NCAA tournament only to get bounced in their opener. Last year? Similar story. CU looked like a Big East title contender to begin the season — the Jays were alone in first place after five games — but Krampelj’s injury left Creighton scrambling. It reached the tournament, but it lost in the first round again.
“And those years we got hurt, we replaced Maurice with a freshman and we replaced Martin with a redshirt who’d never played a game,” McDermott said. “It happened at positions where our depth was very, very young.”
They would like to avoid that next season. The Jays appear to have accumulated more bodies to better prepare for something like that.
However, Zegarowski (hip/back) is out for the summer to heal. Sophomore Mitch Ballock (groin) isn’t practicing this summer, either, after having surgery. And Krampelj is still recovering from his ACL tear. You just never know with injuries.