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Back to the Big East: Creighton

The Blue Jays should be contenders in the Big East next year.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament- St. John’s vs Creighton Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

What was the first thing you thought of when you found out UConn back to the Big East was actually happening? It probably wasn’t: “Yes! We get to share a conference with Creighton!”

Creighton may not mean much to UConn fans, but they’ve been powering up since joining the Big East in 2013.

Did you know who led the Big East in attendance last year? Creighton.

Do you know who had the only Big East player to lead the nation in scoring? Creighton.

What about the team that blew the second-biggest lead EVER in the NCAA Tournament? Creight-oh wait that’s Cincinnati.

But the point remains, it’s a disadvantage to being all the way out in Omaha and a newer member of a storied conference. You are far from the conference recruiting base, and not often the first name mentioned in national coverage when they think about the league.

However, you cannot argue with the body of work the Creighton basketball program has turned in during the last decade. Sure, Omaha might be a trek reminiscent of Tulsa (which allegedly shared a conference with UConn once) but the CHI Health Center seats over 17,000 and offers a basketball experience few in the country can offer.

What UConn fans have missed

While UConn and Creighton have never played each other, Dan Hurley did lead No. 11-seed Rhode Island to an upset of the No. 6 Bluejays in the 2017 NCAA tournament. That’s why they call him The Carpenter, folks.

The Bluejays boast a 151-86 record since joining the Big East in 2013, with three NCAA tournament appearances. Since the 2015-2016 season, they’ve logged five straight years over 20 wins. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the 2019-2020 team was rolling, at 24-7, and hit its highest AP poll ranking ever at No. 7.

Joe Lunardi slotted Creighton in as a 2 seed, and the stars appeared to be aligning for a deep tourney run, until the virus hit.

In the NBA, former Bluejay and the ageless wonder Kyle Korver is sniping, while “America’s Sweetheart” Doug McDermott is carving out a role for himself with the Pacers after inexplicably sweeping all of the POY awards in 2014. That season was Creighton’s best ever (27-8 in 2013-2014). At the end of his college career, he ranked fifth on the all-time NCAA Division I scoring list, with 3,150 points. Shabazz Napier was better, many experts say.

Journeyman Anthony Tolliver has done his best Kevin Ollie impression with nine teams in 12 seasons while more recently, Khri Thomas and Justin Patton were both drafted but have been struggling to find traction in the pros.

Who is their coach?

Gregg McDermott looks like he wants to sell you a sketchy loan, but the man has over 500 wins, including 231 in the Big East, on his resume. He’s lifted the program into the upper echelon of the conference in the last five-or-so years; the Bluejays haven’t finished worse than third in the Big East since 2016-2017. He plays a run-and-gun, spread style offense with an emphasis on small-ball.

But for as prolific as their offense is, McDermott’s teams tend to fall asleep on defense. Consider them the antithesis of Cincinnati; teams get any look they want on offense, but are often shredded by Creighton’s spacing, cutting, and shooting. It’s pretty basketball when all cylinders are firing, and one of the constants in college basketball year in and year out is to see the Bluejays near the top of the country in offensive efficiency.

Outlook for 2020-2021

Besides Obi Toppin’s Dayton, no team was as robbed as Creighton by the cancellation of March Madness. The Bluejays were flying into March as the top seed in the Big East, led by the backcourt of Ty-Shon Alexander and Marcus Zegarowski, although the latter had just suffered a knee injury.

McDermott’s offensive sets were on full display all season, as his team ranked 9th in the country in three-point percentage (at 38.6%) and 27th in assists with almost 16 a game. While Alexander declared for the draft and signed with an agent, the Bluejays are still loaded for 2020-2021; they’re listed frequently in those “too-early” college basketball top-25 rankings.

Potential Starting 5

Marcus Zegarowski: Zegarowski — who will be a junior next year — was my favorite non-Husky to watch last year. The 6’2” All-Big East second teamer is just so polished with the ball and possesses a silky athleticism that makes incredibly difficult plays seem easy. Think a less athletic, but craftier Zach LaVine. He led the Bluejays in assists with 5 a game, was second in scoring, averaging 16.1 PPG, and will be the focal point of the offense next year. Striking the balance between getting his and putting his teammates in the right spots will be important, because he certainly has weapons at his disposal.

Mitch Ballock: The 6’5” sniper averaged nearly 12 PPG last year, while shooting over 45% from downtown. An advanced metrics darling, Ballock’s spacing with Zegarowski’s penetration are symbiotic. They thrive off of each other. Given UConn’s recent struggles with closing out shooters, keeping an eye on senior Ballock will be key next year.

Damian Jefferson: Whereas Ballock is more of a shooter, Zegarowski is the slasher on the wing. The 6’5” senior —who transferred in from New Mexico his freshman year — led Creighton in rebounds (5.5 RPG), and is a tough for opposing backcourts to contain on the glass. He declared for the NBA draft, but with the deadline pushed back to a still unknown date, all signs point to him returning.

Denzel Mahoney: The transfer who originally started his career at Southeast Missouri is the best bet to fill Alexander’s shoes from a scoring standpoint. Last year’s Big East 6th Man of the Year should step into the starting lineup and will build on his 12 PPG in just 22 minutes per contest. Mahoney also declared for the draft, but is still eligible and all signs point to his return.

It’s a crap-shoot to figure out who could slide into the fifth starter spot. McDermott could go small, or rely on young but unproven frontcourt help. But it sure helps when your “young unproven frontcourt help” are a pair of 7-footers, especially for a team that ranked No. 9 in the Big East last season in offensive and defensive rebounding.

Christian Bishop: If Creighton does indeed go small, the 6’7 Bishop could be the guy in the middle. Averaging 8.6 ppg on 5.4 rpb, the junior turned in big games against big competiton (19 points in a Butler blowout, and 16 points, 9 rebounds vs. Villanova)

Jacob Epperson: The seven-foot redshirt junior out of Australia sat out last season with a broken tibia, but is a former top 100 recruit, and you can’t teach size.

Ryan Kalkbrenner: Another top-100 seven-footer from the class of 2020 that turned down the likes of Purdue, Stanford, and Cincinnati. He boasts NBA-length, and could be a force in a year or two.

From the bench freshman four-star recruit Rati Andronikashvili could be an X-factor. Considered one of the best European prospects in the nation, the kid was earning senior minutes for the Georgian national team back in February during the FIBA qualifying window. How do you know the 6’5” guard is a hooper? When asked about his recruitment, says, “I knew Creighton way before they called me.” What teenager from Tbilisi knows about a school in Omaha?! It’s a testament both to his basketball acumen and how well-regarded the Creighton basketball program is among hoop heads.

There’s also Memphis transfer Antwann Jones and sophomore Shareef Mitchell who will round out depth.

Reinforcements are already in fold for the future, too. Creighton has Duke transfer Alex O’Connell and four-star guard Ryan Nembhard —younger brother of Florida... err... Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard — ready to step in for 2021-2022.

Once more, expect Creighton’s backcourt to be one of the best in the country. Bart Torvik projects Creighton’s offensive efficiency to be 6th in the country, while its defensive efficiency a not-too-shabby 46th. If the team can stay healthy (Zegarowski, Epperson, and Jefferson all have lengthy injury histories) and get bare-minimum production out of its unproven frontcourt, look for McDermott’s men to fight for the top 1 seed in the Big East tournament...

if there’s basketball.