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Mid-Major Top 20 Preview: Creighton Bluejays

The Creighton Bluejays went 29-6 a year ago and return nine of 10 rotation players including All-American Doug McDermott. We know the Jays are going to be able to score. But it is the defensive end that will determine how far the Jays go come March.

Eric Francis

A school record 29 wins. Seventh in the nation in points per game. Second in assists per game. First in field goal percentage. Third in 3-point percentage.

These are all very impressive numbers. However, none of these figures made it onto the practice jerseys of the Creighton Bluejays.

The one that did: 222. That was Creighton's defensive field goal percentage ranking last year, and it's going to serve as a reminder and motivation for the Jays in practice all season long.

"They need to understand, that’s a real number and it impacts our ability to be successful," Creighton's head coach Greg McDermott said. "It’s something that we’ve set our sights on to try to improve and hopefully that constant reminder, if it helps a little bit then it’s worth it."

They Jays do know that 222nd is not going to cut it, and they have been focusing on that end of the floor in practice.

"We’re doing a lot of defense, there’s no doubt, a lot of drills, and I think we’ve put a lot more meaning behind them now," senior guard Grant Gibbs said. "We’re not just using drills, we’re competing to stop people and we know the importance of that. It’s going to cost us wins and losses if we can’t stop people down the stretch of games."

The Jays need to improve defensively to advance come tournament time, but they are still going to be one of the highest-scoring teams in the country with all the offensive talent returning.

Doug McDermott leads the way and was one of the best offensive players in the country last year. McDermott was third in the nation in scoring at 22.9 points per game and did it on ridiculous shooting percentages of 60.1 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from beyond the arc. He posted a team-high 7.2 HW30, which means he's pretty darn good: Dougie Fresh was an All-American for a reason. He should replicate that feat again this year, and is one of the favorites for National Player of the Year.

But the Jays aren't a one-man team by any stretch of the imagination. Starting alongside Doug in the post is senior center Gregory Echenique. The 6-9, 260 pound behemoth is a force in the paint on both ends, and there is nobody else in the Valley that has the combination of size and ability that Echenique possesses. He led the team with a 19.0 DEF100 and was named Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year a season ago. He will be the backbone of the Jays' improved defense. Echenique was second on the team with a 3.8 HW30 and averaged 9.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game last year.

He is ready to step up even more this season, according to Gibbs:

"Obviously he’s in better shape, I think his hands, his footwork are better, he’s shooting the ball better, but I think he’s kind of got more of a sense of urgency," Gibbs said. "He’s more focused and he’s trying to dominate every possession rather than kind of floating in and out of the game when he doesn’t get touches."

Gibbs himself is a big part of this team. He's a point guard on the wing and the guy that makes this offense work. He finished second in the MVC in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio last year, and his ability to move the ball and feed the post keeps the offense flowing, preventing Creighton from becoming stagnant. While his passing ability is his best asset, he's also a good rebounder and a crafty scorer. Gibbs finished last season with a 2.3 HW30, which is a pretty impressive number for only the third-best player on the team.

Creighton surrounds the big three with a supporting cast of knock-down shooters. Guards Jahenns Manigat, Josh Jones and Avery Dingman all shoot the rock at an over 40 percent clip from beyond the arc, as does big man Ethan Wragge.

The key to replicating last season's offensive numbers will be new starting point guard Austin Chatman. The sophomore has huge shoes to fill, as he is replacing hometown hero and career 1,000-point scorer Antoine Young in the starting line-up. Young is a big loss for the Jays as he was second on the team in scoring at 12.1 points per game and third in HW30 at 3.1. Chatman gained valuable experience behind Young as a true freshman last year, but his HW30 was only -0.9 as he struggled with fouls and turnovers. That is pretty typical for a freshman, but he is still going to need to take a big step forward in his development this year. He is lightning quick and an unselfish passer, and although he's not the scorer Young was he should be a step-up defensively.

Creighton will likely have three newcomers stepping into the line-up this year. 7-foot center Geoff Groselle and 6-foot-5 wing Nevin Johnson are coming off of redshirt season. They will be looking to crack the rotation anyway they can. Each brings something unique to the team, and if they can earn some minutes they will bring a different dynamic to the floor. Creighton added two freshman guards to the team this year in Isaiah Zierden and Andre Yates, who will likely be competing for the back-up point guard job. Zierden is a tremendous shooter, but Yates is more of a true point guard who can break down the defense and finish in the lane. My guess is Zierden will be sitting out this season.

The Jays, ranked No. 15 in the preseason AP Poll, received 38 of 40 first place votes for the conference title, the clear favorites in the Valley. McDermott was picked to repeat as MVC Player of the Year. The Jays are getting plenty of hype on both a local and a national level, but they aren't letting it get to their heads.

"I think it’s hard to just completely ignore it but for the most part, just focusing on our group and having a tight-knit circle and just keeping that mentality of next practice, next possession, next game, not looking forward and focusing on getting better every day," Gibbs said.

Although Creighton took home the Valley Tournament title in St. Louis last year, they did not actually win the MVC regular season title, and that is what is motivating the team this year.

"Our team goals are obviously, we want to win the Missouri Valley regular season as well as the tournament," Manigat said. "I think that’s a goal that every team has heading into the season, but we really feel like with this team it’s an achievement that we can accomplish. We kind of let that slip away from us last year in the month of February and we’re kind of eager to get back at it."

However, the Jays have bigger goals in mind as well. Head coach Greg McDermott told the media that after winning only one game in the NCAA Tournament last year, they are setting their sights on the Sweet 16. But Gibbs has an even more lofty goal in mind.

"It’s a great goal obviously," Gibbs said. " I would disagree with him a little, and I know it sounds lofty, but everybody’s goal should be to compete for a national championship ... If you’re not shooting for that, then what are you playing for? We get to the Sweet 16, and then what are we going to do? Obviously, building on last year, that’s a great goal to have. We’ve got a lot of work to do to get back to the tournament, but that’s a great goal to say."

Bottom Line: The Bluejays have had a lot of expectations placed on them this year, both internally and externally. We know they have the offensive firepower to accomplish their goals, but how far they go in March will be determined by their defensive improvement. But no matter how it ends, this should be a special year for the Jays and their fans.