When Creighton’s two seniors take their final bows before the home crowd Sunday afternoon, they’ll certainly cherish their experiences as Bluejays.
That’s because Geoffrey Groselle and James Milliken know how easily things could have been different for them.
“It’s been a rough process,” Groselle said, “but I’m glad it all worked out.”
Groselle is in his fifth season with the program. He contributed little the first three, mainly because lower-leg problems hindered his development. Groselle had a strong finish to last season and carried it over into becoming one of the most improved players in the Big East this season.
“Geoff is just a great example of someone sticking with something,” coach Greg McDermott said. “I think most people in his situation would have packed it in a long time ago. He’s had to go through so much adversity and so many injuries.”
Milliken, too, has turned in a solid final year, first as a reserve and now as a starter the last four games. He also started the final 12 games last season, moving into the lineup shortly after McDermott decided not to dismiss him from the team.
McDermott had suspended Milliken before a Dec. 19 game, saying at the time there was no guarantee Milliken would be allowed to return. Milliken wasn’t allowed to practice or travel with the team to a Dec. 21 game at North Texas.
Instead, he returned home to Siler City, North Carolina, to await word of his fate.
“I didn’t know if Mac was going to let me back or not,” Milliken said. “I stayed in the gym and worked out, and I tried to do what I could to make myself better as a person off and on the court.
“When Mac called me on Christmas and told me I was back on the team, I knew it was a challenge to get myself together.”
Milliken did, and he’ll leave Creighton not only with a lot of basketball memories but with a degree.
“I’ve loved my time here,” Milliken said.
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One of the things the 7-foot Groselle values most about his final season is getting to show he was capable of making a contribution.
The Plano, Texas, native redshirted his first season in the program, then played sparingly the next two with his leg issues.
“The thing I’ll always be impressed with is how the coaches stuck with me,” Groselle said. “They could have easily given up on me. I wasn’t getting playing time. I was hurt.
“A lot of guys might have left on their own, but I’m glad I stuck it out, and I’m glad I fought through it.”
Groselle did start to blossom a bit at the end of last season, averaging 9.1 points and 3.9 rebounds over the last 10 games. Still, he came into this season having scored 200 points in his first 63 games while grabbing 102 rebounds.
“I knew deep down I was a good player,” said Groselle.
Mike Groselle tried to reinforce that in conversations with his younger brother. Mike had played for The Citadel from 2009-13, scoring 1,341 points while shooting 58.7 percent from the field.
“My brother went through some injuries and adversity, too,” Geoffrey said. “He just kept telling me to keep fighting, and his words were very motivational to me.”
Groselle has started 27 of Creighton’s 28 games this season. He has scored 294 points (10.5 average) on 68.3 percent shooting, grabbed 166 rebounds (5.9) and blocked 34 shots (1.2).
He ranks first in the Big East in field-goal percentage, eighth in blocked shots per game, 17th in rebounding and 29th in scoring.
And he’s doing it as a walk-on. Groselle graduated in December 2014 with a degree in financial analysis and entered Creighton’s MBA program. He gave up his scholarship so the Bluejays could add another player last summer.
“Besides what he’s doing on the floor, his leadership off the court has been incredible,” McDermott said. “Our players respect him because they know what he’s been through, and they know it hasn’t been easy for him.
“He’s worked very hard to have this one year where he’s one of the focal points of our offense. We’re going to miss him next year.”
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Milliken was McDermott’s first recruit after the spring 2013 announcement that the Bluejays were moving from the Missouri Valley to the Big East. A high-scoring guard in his two seasons at Cowley County (Kansas) Community College, the 6-3 Milliken was expected to fill in for Grant Gibbs.
Gibbs had transferred to Creighton after two seasons at Gonzaga and, after sitting out the transfer season, emerged as a two-season starter. Gibbs spent his first year at Gonzaga redshirting and injured, so Creighton petitioned the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility.
The NCAA granted Gibbs a waiver in the middle of the summer, leaving Milliken a victim of the numbers game. He decided to redshirt, delaying his Creighton debut until the first game of last season.
“I got to watch how Grant and Jahenns (Manigat) played, and being able to practice against those guys helped make me a better player,” Milliken said. “We also had a very successful team. Being a part of that team was special to me.”
Creighton finished the 2013-14 season — its first in the Big East — with its third straight trip to the NCAA tournament. It also was the end of the team’s run with Doug McDermott, the consensus 2014 national player of the year.
The Bluejays also lost three other valuable contributors to that group. That caused plenty of struggles last season, when they won just 14 games and finished in a last-place tie in the Big East standings.
Milliken finished his first season on the court averaging 9.6 points per game. He was particularly good in his 12 starts at the end of the season, averaging 13.1 points.
“He took advantage of that redshirt year and improved his game,” McDermott said. “He played the best basketball of his career last year down the stretch. He had a great tournament in New York City.
“This season, we’ve asked him to play a number of different roles. He’s accepted coming off the bench for most of the season.”
Milliken admits he was a bit uneasy at the beginning of this season.
“You know, senior year, you’re supposed to start,” Milliken said. “But I realized how I would play didn’t matter if I were a starter or if I came off the bench, and even though I wasn’t starting, I was still third in minutes.”
Milliken stands fifth on the team in scoring this season with an 8.1 average.
“James also has improved as a defensive player,” McDermott said. “He’s accepted the role we want him to play for us, and if we’re going to make some noise here in the last couple of weeks, he’s going to be an important part of that.”
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Milliken treasures being a part of Creighton’s 2014 NCAA tournament team, even though he didn’t get to play. The same holds true for Groselle, whose first three seasons at Creighton ended with trips to the tournament.
Both players hope their final season ends with a return to the field of 68. Wednesday’s home loss to Marquette might have put a dent in the Bluejays’ chances of getting back, but they still have outside hopes.
“Even though I didn’t get to play,” Milliken said, “being a part of that team was special to me.”
Groselle got to play a few minutes of mop-up duty in the Bluejays’ 2013 and 2014 tournament appearances.
“I definitely enjoyed those years of going to the tournament and watching Doug play,” Groselle said. “He was spectacular to watch, but if we can get back there, with me playing more of a role, that would give me a whole different level of accomplishment.”
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