NEW YORK — Big East coaches have made it clear they think Maurice Watson is an elite talent, and the Creighton guard isn’t sure how to react to that.
He’s used to hearing doubters mumble skepticism about his game. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior has always been the slender and undersized kid whose jumper lacks consistency and whose dribble drives too often end with a blocked shot.
“All my life I’ve been the underdog,” Watson said Tuesday. “All my life I’ve been told I can’t do it, and my teams aren’t going to do this or that.”
Not Tuesday. Conference coaches named Watson to the preseason All-Big East first team. His Bluejays are picked by coaches to finish third in the conference — and expected by national analysts to maintain a spot in the Top 25.
Watson reflected on his past a bit at Big East media day, mentioning that he almost backed away from basketball as a child and noting that the Big East program in his hometown of Philadelphia (Villanova) didn’t end up recruiting him. But he won’t be under the radar on any scouting reports this season.
Watson, the transfer from Boston University, was Creighton’s top scoring option last season, averaging 14.1 points a game. He led the conference in assists (6.5 per game). He was a second-team All-Big East honoree in his first year with CU.
His opponents apparently believe he’ll be even better.
“It feels good,” Watson said. “It does take me back, when I was younger, when people would say I’d never make it to the Big East. ... But now I’ve just got to keep producing and keep working hard.”
He’ll undoubtedly be the tone-setter for Creighton, which was picked ninth in the conference’s preseason polls the last two years. But with Watson and other veterans returning — plus the addition of transfer Marcus Foster, a preseason honorable mention choice — the expectations for the Jays have risen.
And the players have taken notice.
“You’ve got to stay level-headed,” senior forward Cole Huff said Tuesday. “(Preseason hype) is all just on paper until you go out there and perform. This doesn’t mean anything. But at the same time, that doesn’t take away from our excitement.”
The Jays have been energized since the summer. Huff and Watson, the program’s representatives in New York for Big East media, each praised the team’s mentality.
In fact, Watson said he couldn’t remember a time this summer when he walked into an empty practice gym. Somebody was either working out or putting up shots. He said there have been instances when they’ve been told to go home — because it’s too late or because they need to rest up for the next day’s practice.
But the players believe it will take that kind of commitment level for the Jays to reach their goals.
They want to contend for a Big East title. They want to end their two-year NCAA tournament drought. Watson uttered the words “Final Four” a couple of times Tuesday.
They’ve had lofty locker-room goals before. But when you’re framed as a Big East bottom dweller, there’s a tendency to use that outside perception as motivation.
The Jays are among the hunted this season. It’s their league opponents that will have the chip on their shoulder.
That means Creighton had better be ready, Watson said.
“Being on the opposite side of the spectrum for us isn’t a bad feeling,” he said. “But it makes the (required) work double up and triple up. Because now we have that target on our backs. We’ve got to bring it every night.”