Creighton’s first basketball practices featured an acute case of parent-child separation anxiety. Only this time it was Dad feeling uncomfortable and adrift. Greg McDermott had to adjust to the sensation of emptiness where his son had been for four years, on the court and in meeting rooms and everywhere else. It was difficult, so Greg called his kid. He told Doug McDermott that he missed him.
Especially on offense.
“There are a few plays that have kind of been go-to plays for three to four years,” Greg McDermott says. “You maybe pat yourself on the back for drawing up a great play. When it’s not Doug on the other end of it, it’s a little bit different.”
There is really only one way to contextualize Creighton as it begins its season Friday against Central Arkansas. Doug McDermott is gone. His impeccable shot-making and the 3,150 points and national player of the year awards it created are gone. This is a program redefined, embarking on Year 1 A.(Mc)D. Thousands of people will enter the CenturyLink Center in Omaha for the season opener and many will be feeling the same loss of identity as the Bluejays themselves.
“I’ve been asked almost every day by people around town, what to expect,” senior forward Avery Dingman says. “My guess is as good as everybody else’s. I think we’ll surprise a lot of people, but there are a lot of question marks, and I think those question marks will work themselves out.”
Or as senior Austin Chatman, the team’s lone returning starter, puts it: “That’s always the first question: ‘How are you guys going to be this year?’”
If there’s a short answer, it’s that Creighton will try to do most of the same things in different ways.
The four starters who departed after last season – and the elder McDermott says this is the first time in 26 years he’s lost a starting quartet -- accounted for 5,934 points, 1,062 assists and 2,250 rebounds in their Creighton careers. Their absence will not change plans to play fast. Their exits will not move them away from ball movement and the pursuit of the best shot possible; in fact that may be even more crucial without Doug McDermott attracting defenders.
“We’ve had the luxury of throwing the ball to Doug and letting him go to work a lot,” Dingman says. “That just frees up so much space for all of the other guys. We don’t have that this year. We’ll need to work it around.” And they won’t abandon the three-point shot: The Bluejays hit 14 bombs from beyond the arc in their lone exhibition game against Sioux Falls last Friday.
Creighton knows what it wants to do. It’s the how and the who that remain unsettled. The Bluejays may be a less inverted attack than before; McDermott and 6-foot-7 Ethan Wragge, the team’s starting frontcourt a year ago, were also the best shooting options. This year, the bulk of the scoring may arrive from the perimeter and wings, with a heavy dose of screen-and-roll action ignited by the 6-foot Chatman and 6-2 senior Devin Brooks.
“One of the things that maybe surprised me that I hadn’t thought about -- the guys we have returning that played last year, often time those guys were screeners,” Greg McDermott says. “We were doing whatever we could to shake Doug or Wragge loose. Now you put guys together that really have it drilled in their minds to be good screeners, and now you’re out there together, screening for one another. It’s worked pretty well. We’ve flowed pretty well offensively. I like where we’re at there.”
Creighton can steal some scores in transition, too, using those quick guards to push the ball up the floor. It can tend to the offensive glass now that it has actual centers and not small forwards masquerading as big men. Will Artino (6-11), Geoffrey Groselle (7-feet) and redshirt freshman Toby Hegner (6-10) all must scavenge for points off the boards. But there is another way the Bluejays can account for the lost volume of points: By allowing fewer.
The defense ranked 152nd nationally last year in adjusted efficiency, per kenpom.com. With more traditional personnel -- guards that look like guards, but especially centers that look like centers -- there will be less improvisation and more natural matchups. “There will be somebody to guard every position,” Chatman says. And if there is one way Doug McDermott’s graduation alters the plan for the better, it is on this end of the floor. No longer does Creighton have to strain to give its star scorer help, to ensure that he would avoid foul trouble. There is more freedom to focus on individual assignments and therefore create a more solid defensive front.
“There are a lot of things we had to do to expose parts of our defense that we don’t have to do this year,” Greg McDermott says.
Ask the Bluejays who might assume a heavier load on a team that returns no double-digit scorers, and the conversation covers the entire roster. Greg McDermott cites the need for Brooks, who averaged 6.5 points in 16.6 minutes last season, to establish himself as a creative force. “At times, he’s going to make some plays that drive me nuts,” the coach says. “The reality is I have to give him a little more rope.”
There’s also Henger, who endured a year of guarding Doug McDermott and Wragge in practice -- “Talk about being defeated most days,” Greg McDermott says – but who demonstrated a deft shooting touch through October practices. There’s junior college transfer James Milliken, who averaged 18.4 points per game for Cowley County Community College in 2012-13 and sat out last year. “He can score from everywhere,” Chatman says. There’s Isaiah Zierden, who had shown some scoring promise – notably scoring 13 points in a win over then No. 6 Villanova in February – before dislocating his patellar tendon on March 1. There’s 6-7 freshman Ronnie Harrell, a top-100 recruit per ESPN’s rankings.
And then there are holdovers like Chatman (8.1 points per game) and Dingman (3.2 ppg) and others who must find in themselves the assertiveness they had to stifle for years. “Everybody that got recruited, in high school, they were that guy,” Chatman says. “People always were capable of scoring, but nobody really had seen it, because we didn’t have to do that. That wasn’t their role.”
It’s an odd brew in Omaha this season. Greg McDermott notes that his team isn’t young, that its five seniors all have played in NCAA tournament games. And yet his players are inexperienced. He says it directly: Some guys will be in roles they’ve never been in before. And he has no idea how they will react to it.
Dougie and his McBuckets are gone. The only choice is to take shots -- many, many shots -- at replacing him.
“I think we’re pretty excited, actually,” Chatman says. “A lot of us, this is what we’ve really been waiting for.”