Just before his team’s final summer practice on campus last week, coach Greg McDermott paused to think about lineup combinations for his team’s three exhibition games in Australia.
He glanced across the court and couldn’t help but chuckle.
Center Jacob Epperson and point guard Marcus Zegarowski — two potential starters — were getting loose, but they weren’t doing so with the intention of participating in any of the full-contact drills. They won’t play in Australia.
Last season’s leading scorer, Ty-Shon Alexander, wasn’t even there that day — he’ll miss Creighton’s first game in Australia on Monday, and likely will be limited in the other two after logging significant minutes with the U.S. Pan American team.
And new big man Kelvin Jones, the 6-foot-11 grad transfer who recently joined the program to help add depth on the interior, was standing on the sideline with a cast on his right hand (broken finger). He won’t suit up in Australia, either.
“We’re rolling with a little different team out there,” McDermott said with a smile.
The good news, though?
Said McDermott: “I was going to try to play everybody anyway, to give them a taste of it. But we’re going to throw some new guys to the fire against some pretty good competition.”
That’s essentially been the theme of July.
Freshmen Shereef Mitchell, Jalen Windham and Nic Zeil have logged a considerable amount of reps. Same goes for transfer Antwann Jones, who’ll sit out next season but is cleared to play in Australia.
The Bluejays held 10 practices this past month, each designed to instill the fundamentals of their offense and defense. They worked on the basics but in a high-intensity setting that’s typically reserved for October’s preseason.
It was their chance to establish their absolutes.
How hard you need to sprint in transition. How committed you have to be to communicating defensively. How you move off the ball to keep the floor properly spaced offensively. How you work.
Practice nearly stopped Wednesday when junior Damien Jefferson launched toward a loose ball and slid across the court as his arms wrapped around the ball — players shouted, cheered and stormed the floor to celebrate it.
“If you drill it in early and make it a point of emphasis early, then that’s stuff you don’t have to worry about in February,” junior Mitch Ballock said. “It should just be a habit. From that standpoint, I think we’re getting there. The 10 practices, that’s a good start.”
So even though it won’t be at full strength in Australia — CU may roll with a five-guard lineup at times — this team will get a chance to test its progress.
Creighton is set to play the Australia Centre of Excellence at 3 a.m. (Central) on Monday. It’ll face Cairns Taipans at 5:30 a.m. Thursday. The trip will conclude with a 4 a.m. game against Bullets Invitational on Aug. 12.
Whatever the game results are, senior Davion Mintz is convinced that he and his teammates have already taken positive steps. But they can’t backslide between now and the official start of preseason practice in September.
“It felt like we were already starting practice. Like, real practices,” Mintz said. “And now, we don’t have to come in teaching (in September). The coaches will be expecting — they’ll have expectations that we will pick up the things that we’ve learned. This can give us a head start.”
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After growing up in Cascade, Iowa, Greg McDermott went on to play at Northern Iowa from 1984-88, earning second-team all-conference honors as a junior.
After serving as an assistant at North Dakota, Greg McDermott got his first head coaching job at Wayne State in 1994. He won 116 games there in six years and led the Wildcats to four straight 20-win seasons.
Greg McDermott took over at his alma mater, Northern Iowa, in April 2001. He made three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament from 2004-06.
Greg McDermott was introduced as Iowa State's new coach in March 2006, but he struggled to find success in Ames. He left after four seasons with a losing overall record, no NCAA tournament appearances and no better than a seventh-place finish in the Big 12.
Greg McDermott was tabbed in April 2010 to replace Dana Altman as Creighton's next men's basketball coach.
Greg McDermott inherited a Creighton roster in his first season that included experienced veterans like Kenny Lawson and Antoine Young, as well as a mix of talented young players like Grant Gibbs, Gregory Echenique and his son, Doug McDermott.
Greg McDermott led Creighton to a 23-16 overall record in his first season. The Bluejays played in the College Basketball Invitational and lost in the championship series to Oregon and former Bluejay coach Dana Altman.
In 2012, Greg McDermott won his first Missouri Valley tournament title with Creighton, defeating Illinois State by four in the championship game.
The 2011-12 season also featured Creighton's first NCAA tournament victory in a decade. The No. 8-seeded Bluejays defeated Alabama in the first round before falling to North Carolina.
Creighton and Greg McDermott made it back-to-back conference tournament titles in 2013. The Bluejays also won the regular-season championship that season.
Greg McDermott led Creighton back to the NCAA tournament in 2013, this time as a No. 7 seed, and defeated Cincinnati in the opener before getting eliminated by Duke in the second round.
Greg McDermott helped steer Creighton into the Big East, and he made his coaching debut in the conference on Dec. 31, 2013 with a 67-49 victory over Marquette.
Greg McDermott had the opportunity to coach his son, Doug McDermott, for four seasons at Creighton. Doug was a three-time All-American under his father and won the national player of the year award in 2014.
Creighton's third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament ended with another second-round loss. After defeating Louisiana-Lafayette in the opener, CU fell by 30 to Baylor, again falling short of the Sweet 16.
Creighton's first season in the post-Doug McDermott era was a struggle, as the Bluejays limped to a 14-19 overall record — 4-14 in the Big East — under Greg McDermott in 2014-15.
Creighton saw improvement under Greg McDermott in 2015-16, finishing sixth in the Big East with a 9-9 record. The Bluejays made it to the NIT that season, losing to BYU in the quarterfinals.
Greg McDermott led Creighton to its best start in program history during the 2016-17 season. The Bluejays won their first 13 games and were ranked as high as No. 7 nationally before struggling down the stretch.
The late-season struggles continued for Greg McDermott and Creighton into the NCAA tournament. The No. 6-seeded Bluejays fell to Rhode Island in the first round, ending their once-promising season.
Greg McDermott was targeted by Ohio State for its head coaching vacancy, but on June 8, 2017, he announced that he was staying with the Bluejays.
Greg McDermott led Creighton to 21-12 record in 2018. The Jays ended the season with three straight losses, including 72-68 to Providence in the Big East tournament and 69-59 to Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott comforts Marcus Foster near the end of a 69-59 loss to Kansas State in the 2018 NCAA tournament. The loss was the Jays' third straight in the NCAA tournament.