Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, Creighton.
When you’re an outsider to the Midwest, the first thing you notice is how far the horizon reaches. That kind of 180-degree, IMAX-perspective flatness isn’t something you see when you’re surrounded by mountains or the coast. That kind of vista isn’t unusual for someone like Greg McDermott, Creighton’s head coach — that his team’s potential is as vast as the view he looks at every day is, however. In the last decade non-BCS conference teams have an established track record of closing the gap between the Big Six and everyone else. St. Joseph’s, BYU and San Diego State made it regular for mid-majors to serve notice all season, instead of just in March, too. This Bluejays team has the chance to join that group because they are so deep, returning four starters, with a player in Doug McDermott whose All-American votes this preseason were second only to Indiana’s Cody Zeller.
New Bluejays point guard Austin Chatman may be new to leading the team full-time, but he may be the team’s best athlete as a fast, end-to-end player who can also jump over 7-footers. He’s got a reported vertical of 36.5 inches, the best on the team. The rest of the starters are fine if unspectacularly athletic, though Nevin Johnson is an athletic 6-5 reserve guard and reports from Omaha have said reserve center Will Artino can pass like a guard in a 6-11 frame.
Doug McDermott is on every player-of-the-year list in the preseason and his pure shooting stroke (60 percent from the field last season, nearly 49 percent from the arc) is unparalleled in the nation. He’s not as big as many expect him to be, but at 6-7 he plays a wider range of positions not because he plays in the Missouri Valley but because of his fundamentals. On offense he can be a ball-handling point forward or the spot-up shooter who stretches the defense. When he came out of Ames High School with Harrison Barnes, he was barely getting looks from Division I schools — his dad, Greg, who was then Iowa State’s coach but is now Creighton’s, somewhat famously didn’t believe he could play in the Big 12 then. Like a lifelong guard who sprouts to new heights late, McDermott can play point through power forward if needed because of his late spurt in adding weight and height.
Millions of Americans buy gimmick products to try to find the kind of core strength the Bluejays have. It’s the envy of every coach. Of last year’s top 10 players by minutes played nine return this season, meaning four starters pick up right where they left off. The loss of point guard Antoine Young is mitigated to a degree because Grant Gibbs, a senior 6-5 guard who transferred from Gonzaga, led the Missouri Valley in assists last season from the two spot and had the 27th-best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.41) in the nation. Gibbs will be helped by Jahenns Manigat, who drilled 49 percent of his triples in league play, and a senior guard who can help in Josh Jones.