Preseason Favorites on a Roll

Jays’ days in the Valley may be numbered

Seismic shifts in conference alignment have been rocking college athletics over the past few seasons, and it appears likely that Creighton could get caught up in the shift. Speculation has been running wild around the Creighton program in recent weeks regarding the Jays’ future conference plans.
Last month the presidents of the 7 Catholic colleges that compete only in basketball in the Big East Conference elected to defect and form their own league. DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. Johns, and Villanova are expected to add either 3 or 5 teams to their ranks, with Creighton’s name high on the list of potential new members.

The timing has never been better for Creighton to make the jump from mid-major to the big time. Amazingly enough, as of this week, the Jays are ranked higher than any of those tradition rich schools and also draw more fans on average to the ‘Link than any of the seven potential suitors. A big new television deal is rumored to already be in the works, which could translate into a big new payday for Creighton should everything fall into place. At the moment, the eastern contingent is keeping its’ plans close to the vest, while Creighton officials aren’t commenting. This story could break wide open any day, and when it does, it could change the face of Creighton athletics forever.

But while the Jays may find themselves traveling to New York and Chicago for future conference games, this season’s trips are still to Peoria, Carbondale and the rest of their normal Missouri Valley forays.

The Jays were the overwhelming favorite of the media to win the league prior to the season, and so far they have done nothing to change anyone’s mind. All but one of Creighton’s 14 wins have come by double digits, and after last weekend’s action, the Jays are already 3-0 in the league.

The usual suspects have had their fingerprints all over their success so far. Junior All-American Doug McDermott started slow out of the gate, but over the past month and a half Run DMD has hit his stride. ESPN named McDermott the National Player of the Month for December as he averaged a nation leading 26.5 points per game and shot 57.6 percent from 3 point range.

Senior center Gregory Echenique has been treating the lane like it’s his own personal piece of real estate. The returning conference Defensive Player of the Year leads the Valley in field goal percent, is third in rebounds, and fourth in blocks. Senior guard Grant Gibbs has been an assist machine, leading the league with 5.9 per game.

Sophomore point guard Austin Chatman is also dishing out dimes at a high rate while giving the Jays an added scoring punch. Junior forward Ethan Wragge and sophomore guard Avery Dingman continue to make Creighton’s opponents pay for leaving them open from outside the arc. Dingmans’s role has grown since Josh Jones has been sidelined, and he has been taking advantage of the opportunity with solid play on both ends of the court.

Here is a quick look at the rest of the contenders in order of their predicted finish.

Wichita State (14-1) has exceeded expectations after losing 4 starters from last year’s regular season championship squad.  The Shockers haven’t skipped a beat thanks to an infusion of junior college talent and the strong play of their lone returner, forward Carl Hall. Over the past 2 seasons, Wichita State is 23-4 away from home, the second best road record in all of college basketball. The Shockers join the Jays as the only unbeaten teams in the Valley so far.

Illinois State (9-6) boasts a high octane offense, led by senior all-conference forward Jackie Carmichael and senior guard Tyler Brown. The Redbirds were picked second in the preseason, but a rough start to open league play has dropped them to 0-3 already, including a 79-72 loss to Creighton at home last week.

Northern Iowa (8-7) faced the toughest non-conference schedule in the league, including 3 games against ranked foes. The Panthers lost them all but came close against Louisville and Memphis. Coach Ben Jacobsen’s squad returns 6 of its’ top 7 scorers from last season when it won 20 games and reached the NIT. The Panthers tough road thus far should prepare them well for league play, and they’re always a tough out in Cedar Falls.

Evansville (9-6) has been slowed by an early season injury to its’ star, senior guard Colt Ryan. Ryan’s scoring average has dipped from the 20.5 points he averaged last season, but as his health has improved so has his scoring. The Purple Aces are more than just a one man band as senior guard Troy Taylor is probably the most underrated player in the league. Taylor is currently fifth in the conference in rebounding with 7.6 boards per game and fourth in assists at 4.4 per contest.

Indiana State (9-5) also faced a tough non-conference slate. The Sycamores were trounced by UCLA at Pauley Pavilion to open the season, but have shown steady improvement since. Senior all-conference guard Jake Odum is their heart and soul, leading the team in scoring, assists and steals. The Sycamores also feature a strong front line boosted by the addition of Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop. Arop’s athleticism has made a big impact, and his 12.8 scoring average is second on the team.

Bradley (10-5) has been the surprise team so far, having already eclipsed its’ total of 7 wins last season. Head Coach Geno Ford’s second team hangs its hat on defensive pressure, leading the league in steals while ranking second in field goal percentage defense. The Braves are the most balanced scoring team in the league, led by junior guard Walt Lemon Jr. at 13.7 points per game. Senior guard Dyricus Simms-Edwards leads the conference in steals with 3.2 thefts per contest.

Drake (6-8) can light it up from outside thanks in large part to senior guard Ben Simons. The Bulldogs took a big hit in the offseason when star guard Rayvonte Rice elected to transfer to Illinois, but the return of junior center Seth VanDeest has helped soften the blow. VanDeest missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. Senior forward Jordan Clarke is also a force inside and currently leads the Valley in rebounding with at 8.4 boards per game. Drake is already in a hole to begin league play at 0-3 after losing at home to hapless Missouri State last weekend by 12.

After winning only 8 games all last season, Southern Illinois (7-7) has shown signs of resurgence under new coach Barry Hinson. Hinson was the head man at Missouri State from 1999 to 2008 before spending the past 4 seasons as an assistant at Kansas. The Salukis strength lies in their backcourt, led by junior guard Desmar Jackson. Jackson is scoring 15.6 points per game with senior guard Jeff Early chipping in 12.8 per contest. The reality of conference play has slowed the Salukis positive momentum, however, as they also find themselves 0-3 to open league play.

Just when it looked like it was time to start shoveling dirt on top of Missouri State (4-11), the Bears clawed back with a pair of Valley wins to start 2-1. The Bears are another guard heavy squad, led by senior Anthony Downing and freshman Marcus Marshall. They have been seriously overmatched down on the block especially after losing their top inside threat, senior Jamar Gulley, to a torn ACL during the offseason.

So in the near future, Creighton’s road to a conference title could take on a totally different feel, but this season looks to be another showdown between the Jays and the Shockers. The teams tangle in Wichita Jan. 19 and don’t meet again until the regular season finale at the ‘Link on March 2. By then, who knows, Creighton’s course may be headed into a whole new direction.

posted at 03:03 pm
on Thursday, January 10th, 2013

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