Two years ago, Providence’s coach was immersed in the optimism-filled aura that tends to define the Big East media day at Madison Square Garden. But then came a question about Creighton’s up-tempo offense, and he couldn’t help but groan.
It was a bit of an embellishment, certainly. No way did Ed Cooley truly succumb to exasperation at the brief thought of game planning against a peer.
But the esteem was genuine. He wasn’t alone then, either. At the start of the 2017-18 season, the Jays’ stylistic reputation was firmly established. They were going to run, and run, and run — at a rate not typically replicated at the highest level of college hoops.
Opponents had to find a way to deal with it.
“They’re brutal to prepare for,” Cooley said that day in 2017. “The pace that they play at. In our preparation for it, we literally practice against seven players on the floor offensively.”
That was the impact of Creighton’s quick-scoring ability. Opposing players had to be on alert because the Jays could catch you napping at any time, especially after you exhaled because you defended the first wave or celebrated because you made a shot.
But last season?
Last season, Creighton wasn’t at that level.
The Jays simply didn’t move as fast. Their offensive possessions lasted an average of 16.9 seconds, ranking 97th nationally, according to Ken Pomeroy’s data. They attempted 26.7% of their field goals in transition (36th), according to Hoop-Math.com.
They were inexperienced. They had injuries. They spent considerable time in practice midway through the season trying to solve their defensive woes. There were games — namely the 66-59 overtime loss at Villanova — when coach Greg McDermott instructed his guys to deliberately slow the tempo down.
“The hand was essentially dealt for us (last season), that we had to back off our pace somewhat,” McDermott said. “Because of injuries and because of the makeup of our roster. But hopefully we get those guys back and we get back to playing the way we want to play.”
It would appear that by the time this season begins, the Jays will have the horses to race up and down the floor again.
Speedy point guards Marcus Zegarowski and Shereef Mitchell are the ones triggering the attack in practice — plus there’s Davion Mintz, who may end up playing more as a shooting guard but who also has experience advancing the ball quickly.
Wings Mitch Ballock, Ty-Shon Alexander, Damien Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney (and Mintz) will gallop down the sidelines, spotting up for 3s or finding open driving lanes toward the goal.
Forwards Jacob Epperson, Christian Bishop and Kelvin Jones can beat their slower-footed defenders down the floor and make themselves available at the rim.
“For us, pace is definitely a big part of the way we want to play,” Mintz said. “It’s always been a big factor in our offense — but in my four years here, I feel like this is the fastest we can play with the guys that we have.”
Mintz definitely knows what it’s like when the Jays are operating with the pedal to the floor.
In the 2016-17 campaign, CU’s offensive trips lasted just 14.9 seconds (ninth nationally) — UCLA was the only major-conference team that moved faster. The Jays had the sixth-highest shot attempt percentage in transition (30.6% of its field goals came on the break) in Division I that year.
Cooley shared his aforementioned assessment on Creighton just ahead of the 2017-18 season. Then the Jays went out and blitzed teams again, recording the 10th-quickest average length of possession (15.1 seconds) and the seventh-highest field goal rate in transition (29.4%).
And the rationale behind the Creighton’s commitment to its up-tempo style made sense.
The highest-percentage looks often come early in the shot clock, before a defense is fully set. Plus, if the threat of transition buckets always exists, it takes some steam out of the opponents’ aggressiveness offensively. And, if you’re relentless with the pace, you can wear teams down.
But there are questions facing this year’s group. Can Creighton replicate its past performances? Can it maintain that through March? Can it keep pushing tempo even in games where the opponents are trying to dictate otherwise?
The players think so. It does require work, though.
That’s what the preseason, which began Tuesday, will be about.
“Last year we didn’t push the ball as much as we wanted to, but now, we’ve got the depth and we feel better than ever,” Alexander said. “We have to run, and we have to get used to it. We always practice with the 12-second shot clock — that’s what Mac wants us to do. He wants us to run, and score the ball.”