If you look closely enough, on a snowy last Saturday in February, you can see hope for Creighton basketball.
It’s there, on the right hand of freshman Marcus Zegarowski, a collage of blue tape that holds together a hard cast and padding and protects a broken bone in the hand of the Jays’ prize point guard.
You may see an injury that held back Creighton’s progress and possibly even its postseason chances.
I see a symbol of the competitive spirit and drive that brought a freshman back onto the court, maybe sooner than he needed to be. I see Zegarowski dribbling and passing with the tape on his bad hand, playing in pain, diving on the floor for a loose ball, being there for his team. I see a leader.
I see hope for the future.
That future begins Saturday, with Georgetown visiting CHI Health Center. You might say next season begins today and, yeah, I know what you’re thinking.
There are still four games left for the Jays (14-13) and all four can be had, even next Sunday’s rematch at Marquette from the long-ago “inbounds game.” Then you make a run at the Big East tournament.
It’s uphill to a postseason tournament for Creighton, any postseason, but that’s a finish worth having.
This season needs a feel-good ending. Thus far, the 2018-19 story has been one of what-ifs and might-have-beens, and fall-back excuses of the young team learning to win, learning to finish.
The Jays recently lost four close games in which they had the lead late and found a way to lose. Turn just two of those around, and it’s a different season at 16-11, especially if one of those was at Villanova.
Turn all four around, and you’re at 18-9 and fitting on a crazy NCAA tournament bubble.
That’s how close this team is to making an NCAA run in a year it wasn’t expected. Coach Greg McDermott has taken some heat, and that’s entirely fair, because he’s the coach.
But those four losses also speak to a core group of sophomores and freshmen who are still trying to figure out how to do this without leaders like Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas to fall back on in crunch time.
And doing that with a freshman point guard — and then doing it with the freshman point guard on the sideline.
The saying that there are no freshmen or young teams in February rings true, but some core groups take longer than others. This one has shown it can play with any team in the Big East. But when it comes to sorting out who does what at the end of a tight game, there’s still some work to do.
Well, the future has become clearer in the last week. And the future looks bright.
When building a Big East contender and a team to do big things, point guard is a good place to start. A kid with basketball IQ. A coach on the floor. He can play some defense, not afraid to take — and make — a big shot. A leader.
Zegarowski will be that guy for Creighton. But in the past two games, he expedited the process.
In his first game back after missing three games, Zegarowski started and played 35 minutes against Seton Hall. He scored eight points with four assists, but he played through the pain that is a point guard handling the ball with a broken bone in his dominant dribble hand.
In the next game, at DePaul, Zegarowski played 28 minutes and scored 11 points, including two 3-pointers.
Nobody could have blamed the freshman if he’d wanted to take some more time off, get the thing healed. But there’s another saying: Everybody’s hurt this time of year. Zegarowski wanted to get back out on the court, to help his team, to become the leader his team needs him to become.
The Z-Man took big strides to becoming that leader, including the image of him diving for a loose ball with no regard for broken bone or blue wrap.
“It’s there, after the game,” he said. “It’s pain everyone feels at this level. It’s fine.
“It’s really all mental. You get locked in and not think about it. It’s protected. If I’m going against somebody, I’ll be able to get hit. That (last week) gave me confidence.”
This is exactly why McDermott had to have Zegarowski over other point guards the Jays’ staff was pursuing. He looks like the prototypical “Big East guard.”
Tough. Physical. A leader.
What’s more, he’s a kid from the Big East.
Six years into this league, Creighton pulled a kid out of the heart of the East Coast, a kid who grew up on the playgrounds and gyms in a place where basketball is a language spoken year-round.
Zegarowski is from Hamilton, Massachusetts, a town of about 7,000 that is 23 miles northeast of Boston. His older brother is Michael Carter-Williams, who was a point guard at Syracuse and was NBA rookie of the year in 2013-14 for Philadelphia.
The younger brother saw many Big East games in Syracuse, but probably never imagined he would end up going to Omaha to be a Big East guard.
“He’s always been real skilled and had a great IQ,” said Creighton assistant coach Preston Murphy, who recruited Zegarowski. “Early in his high school career he wasn’t physically gifted enough to do what you wanted on the court, but we figured once his body matured and he got older, he was the kind of guy who could run a team and be a great leader.
“We saw someone who could play the position at a very high level and, when you have the ball in your hands that much, make a lot of decisions. He had those skills then. Those are hard to teach.”
It’s clear that Zegarowski is “very valuable” to the team, Creighton assistant Paul Lusk said.
“He’s a stabilizing force, he’s got a lot of savvy, he just makes everything flow better,” Lusk said. “He’s very important, even out there not 100 percent. He may not be 100 percent, but we’re functioning better than we were a week or two without him.”
Imagine how good Zegarowski will be in three years. Or next year. The future starts today, against Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. And the future is led by a Big East guard.
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