Final Four or Bust!

Jays stay grounded despite lofty goals

Go ahead and take a drink. Don’t just stop with a sip, drink deep. For Creighton basketball fans, the blue Kool-aid is flowing and its never tasted sweeter as what promises to be a season like no other sets to tip off.

As preseason practice began in October, Head Coach Greg McDermott set the bar high, publicly stating the team’s goal of reaching the Sweet 16. But why stop there? If you’re going to drink the Kool-aid, you might as well chug the whole damn cooler. You read it here first. This is the year the Jays break through and cut a rug through the Big Dance, capturing the hearts of college basketball fans from coast to coast all the way to the Final Four. 

“I’m glad that coach mentioned the Sweet 16 as a spot where we should be, but I think that we all feel that we can even go further than that,” said junior guard Jahenns Manigat. “We also don’t want to look too far ahead of ourselves at the same time. We’ve just got to take it one day at a time, one practice at a time, one possession at a time, and if we do that and keep the mindset that we had last year, there’s no reason why we can’t be up there.”

Creighton is loaded. Nine out of their top 10 players return from last season’s squad that tied the school record for wins while going 29-6 and reaching the 3rd round of the NCAA Tournament. They have a legitimate national player of the year candidate, a man-child in the post, an arsenal of sharp shooters and a team-first mentality that would make even the legendary John Wooden proud.

“Coach Mac has set the tone with a family atmosphere, and once we all got together, everything just kind of clicked.,” added Manigat. “Its not something that we’re trying to fake or show the media, I really, truly feel that these guys are my brothers.”

That closeness is what helped the Jays go 8-1 last season in games decided by 4 points or less and kept them together when they hit a rough stretch last February after climbing to #12 in the national polls.

The national media has noticed. Creighton has been tabbed as this year’s mid-major darling by just about every publication or website that covers college hoops. The coaches’ poll pegs the Jays at #15 to start the season while the A.P. ranks them at #16, the highest preseason ranking for a Valley team since 1981.

It all starts with the coach’s son, Mr. Basketball U.S.A. Doug McDermott. The junior forward has garnered so many accolades in his first two season’s wearing a Creighton uniform that the list takes up a whole page of the press guide. But the short list starts with consensus first team All-American and the first sophomore ever named Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. He led the nation in field goals with 307 while finishing as the 3rd leading scorer at 22.9 points per game. He also pulled down 8.2 boards a game.

While he continued to do most of his damage down low, McDermott expanded his game to the outside last year as well, hitting a school record 48.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, and causing opposing coaches nightmares figuring out how to slow him down. Stopping him outright is simply out of the question. 

McDermott’s importance to the program goes way beyond what he contributes to the stat line. He has remained grounded and hungry despite his accomplishments, and his unassuming, yet articulate manner with the media and fans make him the poster boy for all that is good about college athletics and a perfect ambassador for Creighton. The more national exposure Doug gets, the more Creighton gets and that is a good thing, not just for the basketball team, but for the whole community.  

His leadership has been invaluable and his head coach/old man couldn’t be prouder…

“Outside of what he has done on the basketball floor, I am much more proud of the way he has carried himself and the way he has handled the success in a humble way,” said Greg McDermott, “He has set an example for a lot of young people on how to handle success that will have an impact far beyond what he has done on the court.”

So while Doug may be good at keeping his feet and ego on the ground, he also isn’t afraid of reaching for the stars.

“The sky is the limit. We’ve got a lot of expectations on ourselves, we know we can go far,” said Doug McDermott, “After seeing teams like Butler and VCU make it to the Final Four and even the national championship game…we’re not thinking that far ahead, but we know we are capable of doing what those teams have done in the past. We have the pieces returning and we’ve got some really good coaching as well, so I think we’re ready to have a really special year.”

If the Jays can replicate their offensive success from a year ago, it will be hard to bet against them.  Nationally Creighton finished second in field goal percentage, second in assists, and third in three-point field goal percentage. 

The Jays’ Achilles heel last season was defense, or to put it better, a lack thereof.  The #222 printed on the front of their practice jerseys and the back of their shorts is a constant reminder of where the team ranked last season in total defense out of 345 Division I teams and the biggest reason their season didn’t go further. Priority #1 in the offseason for both the coaches and players was shoring things up on that end of the court. A strong emphasis on defensive drills, as well as a continual focus on communication, has the players and coaches believing  that the squad has indeed made strides.

“I think we’ve gotten better and we are moving in the right direction,” said Greg McDermott. “I’m not sure we’re ever going to be a top 10 defensive team like we are a top 10 offensive team, but we don’t need to be, we just need to improve in that area and continue to work to get better in practice every day and do a good job on the backboards like we did a season ago.”

Building a solid defense starts with the Valley’s returning defensive player of the year, 6’9” center Gregory Echenique. The senior from Venezuela can match up with anyone in the country in the low post, evidenced by his work against ACC player of the year, North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller, in the NCAA tourney.  He looks leaner and meaner than ever, displaying a quickness that was lacking early in his career.

“A lot of us can play pretty good individual defense, but we all need to work on our team defense and doing a better job of helping and talking,” said Echenique. “That’s a big emphasis on what we are doing right now because its all about communication on defense. We’ve made some improvement, but defense is hard and it takes time, so we will continue to work at it.”

Both coaches and players have been impressed during the preseason with the improvement Echenique has made on the offensive end while spending the summer with the Venezuelan national team and facing off against a variety of NBA big men on international rosters.

“With Antoine leaving, the team is going to need me to take on some more of the scoring responsibility, and I think I’ve been working hard to get ready for that,” said Echenique. “Definitely I think people will see a little more of my offensive game, and hopefully I can continue to improve on my strengths in the other aspects of the game as well.”

The biggest question mark besides defense is whether or not sophomore point guard Austin Chatman can fill the shoes left behind by three-year starter Antoine Young. As a freshman Chatman logged 12 min. a game last season gaining valuable experience, but he struggled at times adjusting to the pace of the college game. He also showed some mad ball-handling skills, maturity, and the ability to push the ball up the court at lightning speed.

“Last year I was always looking over my shoulder and worrying too much about not making a mistake,” said Chatman, “I’m just feeling more comfortable on the floor, more comfortable with the coaches and more comfortable with all the players and being on the same page with everyone. There is pressure, but I don’t really focus on that. I just try to take it day by day and get better as a player one practice at a time.”

Having senior guard Grant Gibbs on the floor helps take some of the pressure off of Chatman, as he led the Valley in assists last season, dishing out 5 per game. Gibbs is the straw that stirs the drink for the Jays. Gibbs gives them whatever is needed on a given night, whether its rebounds, steals, assists or a key basket. While he is often overshadowed by the team’s “stars”, Gibbs value to the team cannot be understated.

Also look for freshman point guard Andre Yates to make an impact and push Chatman for playing time.  Yates led his Dayton (Ohio) Dunbar team to an undefeated season last year and hit the game winning basket in the final seconds of the state title game. He has looked strong and fearless on the court thus far and should log significant minutes.

The other returning starter at guard is the team’s “Energizer bunny”, Jahenns Manigat.  A team captain, along with Gibbs, Manigat chipped in 6.6 ppg last season while knocking down 47 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Manigat’s enthusiasm for the game rubs off on his teammates, on and off the court, and he clearly enjoys his role as team cheerleader and inspirational motivator.

Local hero Josh Jones is poised for a strong senior campaign based on his strong play down the stretch last season. Jones’ decision making has improved dramatically, as has his defensive intensity. He has never been quite the scoring machine he was back in high school, where he holds the all-time scoring record at Omaha Central, but he can still stroke it, hitting 42 percent of his three-point shots last season.  Look for Jones to leave it all out on the court this season.

It would be worth the price of admission just to watch junior forward Ethan Wragge and sophomore guard Avery Dingman square off in a game of HORSE against each other. Wragge led the team with 66 three-pointers last season and was the team’s leading scorer off the bench. While both players shot over 40 percent from outside the arc last year, they both have the ability to connect at an even higher level. 

Dingman has also garnered praise for his defensive improvement. Often a liability on that end last season, the 6’6” Dingman has worked hard to transform himself into a long-armed, lockdown defender on the perimeter. Once he recovers from a high ankle sprain, freshman guard Nevin Johnson, coming off a redshirt season, will also be counted on to provide more depth and athleticism on the wings. 

6’11” sophomore Will Artino and 7’ freshman Geoffrey Groselle give Creighton a pair of big bodies down in the paint to spell Echenique.  Artino was second on the squad in blocked shots last year, and would be a starter for most other teams in the league.

Creighton was picked by 38 out of 40 voters to win the Missouri Valley Conference with Illinois State the only other team to receive votes. The Jays haven’t captured the Valley regular season title since 2008-09, so before setting their sights on bigger things, winning the Valley comes first.

So go ahead Bluejay fans.  Pour yourself a big cup of Kool-aid and savor the sugary sweetness as it slides down your throat.  If there was ever a season to drink it all in-this is it.

Creighton opens the season against the Mean Green from North Texas on Friday Nov. 9 at CenturyLink Center Omaha. The Jays follow with a trio of home games over the next week and a half, hosting UAB Nov. 14, Presbyerian Nov. 18 and Longwood Nov. 20.

posted at 06:41 pm
on Tuesday, November 06th, 2012

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