Top 25 Countdown: #22 Creighton

Rotation

G Mo Watson Jr. (Sr.)

G Marcus Foster (Jr.)

G Isaiah Zierden (Sr.)

F Cole Huff (Sr.)

C Justin Patton (R Fr.)

Bench

G Khyri Thomas (So.)

F Toby Hegner (Jr.)

C Zach Hanson (Sr.)

G Ronnie Harrell Jr. (So.)

G Kobe Paras (Fr.)

For the majority of my existence, Dana Altman has been the face of Creighton basketball. Leading the Jays to seven tournament appearances during his tenure in Omaha, ephemeral stardom smiled down on Missouri Valley darlings like Kyle Korver, Nate Funk, and Booker Woodfox. However, he departed Omaha following the 2009-10 season for Eugene, paving the way for the ascendance of then Iowa State head coach, Greg McDermott. Thus, while Altman might have objectively defined Creighton basketball, it has been McDermott, and his son, Mr. McBuckets, who have ostensibly ushered in an era with the closest approximation of transcendence. In Dougie’s three years of superstardom, the formula for the Jays was relatively simple. They were going to score a lot of points. They were going to shoot a lot of threes. They were going to allow a lot of points. But more often that not, they were going to score more points than they gave up. The 29-6, 2011-2012 Jays were 5th in the country in offense and would not finish below the top 5 in the two seasons that followed, boasting the nation’s highest three point percentage in consecutive seasons. However, in the three seasons of McBucket transcendence, the highest Bluejay defensive finish was 69th, which ostensibly owed itself to a commitment to cleaning up the glass and keeping their opponents away from the charity stripe. Most often though, it appeared like their defense was largely characterized by an inability to create turnovers and a overall lack of size. After the departure of Gregory Echenique, the 2013-14 Jays were nominally playing McDermott at center in their most common lineup with molasses footed Ethan Wragge at the 4. And thus, even with an offense that reached scarily good heights, they were left with a team whose inherent construction became its regrettable downfall, perpetually falling just short of the Sweet 16.

But at least they knew who they were. And they had something they had never had before. An absolute superstar, future lottery talent, whose shot-making and overall versatility was something to behold. Inevitably, the last two seasons, post Dougie, have necessitated a transformation, and the discovery of a new identity. But somewhat quietly, these last two seasons have also been the backdrop for the emergence of a new superstar in Omaha.

A transfer from Boston U and an OOWF favorite, Mo Watson Jr. is flat out one of the best players in the entire country. The diminutive point guard is a do-everything speed demon who is also very much a quintessential floor general, albeit with a penchant to turn the ball over just a little too much. A special passer of the basketball, Watson was second in the nation in assist rate in his final season with the Terriers, and was 12th nationally a year ago, while also posting the best mark in the Big East. A high minute, high usage player a year ago, Watson had the ball in his hands incessantly, and much like my discussion of Bryant McIntosh, became the impetus for previously unprecedented team success through his assertiveness on offense, almost single handedly taking over in conference games against Butler and Xavier. Nevertheless, Watson is still markedly a work in progress from beyond the arc, shooting just under 30% a year ago. Therefore, it is helpful that he will continue to be flanked in the backcourt by the experience and shotmaking ability of senior Isaiah Zierden and an emerging 3 and D threat in sophomore Khyri Thomas.

What will be even more helpful however, is that Watson now has someone to more than capably share in the ball handling and play-making responsibilities. Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster finished the 2013-14 season in Manhattan as one of the most highly regarded freshmen in the nation. However, his sophomore year saw not only his play decline, but also his position within the Wildcat basketball program, eventually culminating in his dismissal from the team. Now armed with a change of scenery and a fresh start, McDermott and the Jays hope that Foster can parlay his strength, athletic ability and his ability to create for himself and for others into a backcourt tandem that could very easily become one of the nation’s best. Already best friends off the court, the chemistry between Foster and Watson is what will ultimately determine the Jays’ ceiling, which may very well be higher than this ranking purports. Ostensibly, Foster can become the go to guy at the end of the shot clock, exhibiting an amalgamation of control and explosiveness that is one of the keys to this team’s hopeful postseason success.

Returning in the frontcourt is 6’8″ junior Nevada transfer Cole Huff. In his first season with the Bluejays a year ago, Huff flashed the ability to score in bunches, scoring 35 with 7 threes in a Big East Tournament loss to Seton Hall and 28 in a February home victory over DePaul. Already one of the team’s better shooters from the outside, Huff has also exhibited the ability to be an invaluable defensive contributor, using his athleticism to become one of the team’s best at crashing the defensive glass and forcing turnovers. Returning important rotation pieces like Zach Hanson and Toby Hegner is not insignificant, but the national viability of the frontcourt and its greatest hope for never before seen success lies in seven foot redshirt freshman and Omaha native, Justin Patton. A consensus top 75 recruit, a season ago, Patton represents something the Jays have not recently, and maybe never, had – a dynamic presence at the center position. And while his frame currently inhibits his ability to bang down low, his mobility and ability to stretch the floor will almost immediately render him a nightly matchup nightmare.

This team returns nearly all of its significant contributors from a season that saw them finish as a top 50 offense and defense; rankings that should only be supplemented by another year of experience and the addition of guys like Foster, Patton, and freshman guard Kobe Paras to the rotation. The post-McBuckets reconstruction of the roster now feels complete, and Creighton basketball feels like its ready to once again assume its place at the national forefront, and maybe, finally secure the all elusive berth into the Sweet Sixteen.

Namedrop Corner

Ethan Wragge

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Monday January 20, 2014. In what became an incredibly surreal game watching experience, Creighton, visiting Philadelphia to take on #4 Villanova in a game that felt like it was positioned for the Bluejays to confront their Big East and national legitimacy, began the game with nine consecutive three pointers.

By the 14:00 mark in the first half, the game was already over. Wragge finished with 9 three pointers in a game that saw them win by 28, but he will be permanently accompanied in my mind with Gus on loop shouting, “PPUUUUREEEEEE”.

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