CU big man returns by taking small steps

Creighton center Jacob Epperson has been effective when on the court as he averaged 5.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 11.9 minutes per game.

Creighton center Jacob Epperson finished off a lob, tapped a couple of offensive rebounds out to teammates and affected shots at the rim during the team's eight minutes of game-like work at practice Friday.

It was a small glimpse of the type of impact that the 7-footer can have. But just a glimpse.

And that's by design. Epperson's still working his way back from offseason back and knee surgeries. The sophomore said he's not jumping as high or reacting as quickly as he's used to. His practice time is being regulated. Rehab remains a regular part of his routine.

But he's making progress, even if he only gets to showcase that improvement in spurts.

"It's a process," Epperson said after practice Friday. "We've still got a long ways to go. But I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."

That metaphorical tunnel was hardly illuminated 10 months ago.

Epperson had surgery in January. Then he underwent another procedure on his knee in April. He and the CU athletic training staff have progressed slowly from there, elongating his gradual recovery plan over the course of the summer months.

Epperson said he practiced for 70 consecutive minutes Friday — the third straight day he's gone that long. Two weeks ago, he had a 30-minute cap. Then 40. Then back down to 20.

"It's a situation we're going to monitor extremely close," CU coach Greg McDermott said. "To make sure we're pushing him hard enough, but not too hard. The end game for him is to get him ready a couple months down the road. But we'd certainly like to be in a position where in November, at least he can see some time on the floor."

Creighton certainly could use his production at the center spot this season.

In 21 career games (averaging 11.9 minutes during those appearances), Epperson's scored 5.6 points, grabbed 2.6 rebounds and recorded 0.8 blocks per outing. He's made 72.2% of his shots.

Aside from Epperson, the Jays have just two other scholarship big men competing for playing time in the regular rotation.

But he admittedly is still working to regain his form.

"You can see it when you're sitting down on the sidelines watching — like, oh, you've got to be there," Epperson said. "But then when you're out there, it feels like the mind's running a million miles an hour. I'm just trying to slow all that down, figure out where I need to be, where my teammates want me to be. It'll come back."

He just has to be patient. A few other practice notes are below. The Jays have conducted 10 sessions since opening preseason camp on Sept. 24.

Junior Ty-Shon Alexander, the team's top returning scorer, said one of his focuses during the preseason is to display better body language. He watched game film from last year and noticed moments when he allowed missed shots or mistakes to affect his demeanor on the court.

He's working on that. "I want to be a good role model," he said. "If you're having a bad day, switch it up. If you're missing shots, go to the hole or find somebody else a shot. Defend, no matter what. I've got to keep remembering that, knowing it in my head."

Senior Davion Mintz hopes to be an energy tone-setter on both sides of the ball — he wants to push tempo offensively and bring tenacity to the defensive end. But there's a balance he's trying to find. Because you can wear yourself out trying to do that. Fatigue can lead to mistakes.

So he's trying to identify those lulls in the action and use them to consciously reset. He'd like for this to become routine.

"I want to play the game smarter, and more efficiently," Mintz said. "When you're moving at our pace, sometimes your mind speeds up as well. I just want to breathe, slow my game down, and then go."

The coaches have spent a lot of time in practice working with graduate transfer Kelvin Jones, who's an eager learner. But the 6-foot-11 newcomer is still getting integrated.

Jones, who played last year at Idaho State, was on hand for practice in July when the Jays prepared for their exhibition tour in Australia, but McDermott said those workouts weren't as detailed as the sessions CU's conducting now. Plus, Jones injured his hand before Creighton took its offseason trip. So he never got to play in games.

"He didn't get the benefit that we would have hoped out of the summer," McDermott said.

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