MEN'S BASKETBALL: CREIGHTON AT DEPAUL
Noon Sunday • Allstate Arena, Rosemont, Illinois Fox Sports 1 • 1620 AMKOZN
It must be the beard, right? Creighton center Zach Hanson laughed heartily when asked if his improved play this season might be tied to the mountain-man facial hair he's sporting.
"I figured since I've kind of have a new me," Hanson said, "I probably should have a new look, too."
The "new me" Hanson was referring to is the change in how he approaches the game. It's helped him replace the struggles he endured as a sophomore last season with productivity on both ends of the court.
The 6-foot-9 Hanson is averaging 7.6 points and 3.3 rebounds in less than 14 minutes of playing time per game as Geoffrey Groselle's backup. Hanson is shooting 66.7 percent from the field and a career-high 72.7 from the free-throw line.
As a sophomore, Hanson averaged 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds while shooting 54.7 percent from the field and 63.3 percent at the line. What the improvement in his numbers doesn't fully reflect is the confidence Hanson appears to have added to his game.
"His game has matured," coach Greg McDermott said. "He's learned to relax and play through the tough times better."
Hanson's main difficulty last season appeared to be a lack of confidence. He struggled to make even the simplest plays, and the situation snowballed on him as the season progressed.
"He was a sophomore but he didn't play many meaningful minutes his freshman season," McDermott said. "It was his first time through, and you're from Pierre, South Dakota, and your first time through is in the Big East. There were a lot of expectations."
Hanson's individual struggles were compounded by the lack of success Creighton had last season. After three straight trips to the NCAA tournament, the Bluejays finished 14-19. They lost their first eight Big East games and finished tied for last in the regular season.
"There were some internal issues that Zach needed to figure out," McDermott said. "To his credit, he's gotten through them and he's given us a steady effort all season long in spite of his foot issues.
"There is no question he's our best defender in the front line. He is doing a lot of great things this season."
And he's having fun doing it. Reflecting on his sophomore year during the offseason, Hanson realized something was lacking.
"I take the game seriously, but at the end of the day, you have to have a lot of fun doing what you're doing," Hanson said. "I tell myself every day, whether it's before a practice or a game, that I'm going to play as hard as I can.
"At the same time, I'm going to have as much as fun as I can.
That's been big for me."
Hanson also cites maturity for his transformation. Last season, Creighton divided playing time in the middle among three players. The graduation of Will Artino left Groselle and Hanson as the Bluejays' options.
"I know my role," Hanson said. "I know what I have to do and I'm just going out there and playing my butt off and having some fun. It's been working for me.
"I think I have a better sense of perspective on everything. We all understand we play on a big stage and there are a lot of people that love Creighton basketball. We want to win and we want to win for those fans. With that being said, you have to have fun at what you're doing. I think I've found a good balance at that."
Hanson's teammates have noticed the change.
"He's just relaxing and going out and playing," guard Isaiah Zierden said. "He's given us a bunch of games where he's given us a big lift off the bench.
"Last year, I think he was putting so much pressure on himself, feeling he had to do this or do that to get minutes and be productive. This summer everyone just tried to talk to him about letting it go and just playing and staying the moment. I think he's done a good job of it."
Hanson's productivity has come despite a foot injury he suffered in preseason practice. McDermott said Hanson struggled with the injury early in the season.
"The reality of it is that it's not going to get any better without a lot of rest," McDermott said. "Once Zach understood that I understand that he's at 80 percent and that's all we're going to have, he quit worrying about it.
"It really hasn't been an issue the last six weeks. He's found a way to really work through it."