The Sweet 16 has become a holy-grail quest for Creighton’s basketball team.
The Bluejays have come within a victory of achieving it in each of the past two seasons. First, North Carolina ruined Creighton’s bid a year ago to make program history in the NCAA tournament. Sunday, Duke quashed the attempt with a 66-50 victory at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
After the final game of a 28-8 season, the Bluejays talked about what they’ll have to do to get back to the same position next March. They know the degree of difficulty skyrockets next season, given their move from the Missouri Valley to the new Big East, but that won’t alter their approach.
“We want to get back to this game and get over the wall and get to the Sweet 16,” said guard Grant Gibbs, who might be a part of next year’s bid. “We’ve been here before and we’ve tasted that success, and sometimes that can be a bigger motivator than anything else.
“It’s going to be a whole new set of challenges next year. We’re losing a lot but we have a lot coming back.”
With whom the Bluejays begin the reloading process is a bit murky at this point.
Center Gregory Echenique definitely played his final game against the Blue Devils, and fellow senior Josh Jones had to give up basketball in December because of a heart issue.
Gibbs, too, likely is gone, although he has the long-shot option of petitioning the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility because of past injury issues. He and Creighton coach Greg McDermott each said Sunday they would explore the possibilities and then make a decision in coming weeks.
Of course, the biggest question rests with the status of two-time All-America forward Doug McDermott. In the coming weeks, McDermott and his father will gather information from NBA officials that could aid in the decision of whether the player returns to Creighton for his senior season or turns professional.
If he returns, Creighton’s transition to the Big East becomes a whole lot easier. If he doesn’t, coach McDermott said, he still likes where the program is sitting.
“I think the future is bright,” he said. “We have a lot of good, young talent to bring us back here.”
Without him, though, the Bluejays would not have an individual talent capable of putting a team, and a program, on his back and leading it into what figures to be a brave, new frontier for Creighton.
The Big East figures to be a step up — or two or three — in the level of conference competition the Bluejays are used to facing on a night-in, night-out basis. Four of Creighton’s new conference brethren — Marquette, Butler, Georgetown and Villanova — also made the NCAA tournament, with Marquette advancing to the Sweet 16.
If Gibbs and McDermott do not return, Creighton would have two starters back in guards Austin Chatman and Jahenns Manigat as well as sixth man Ethan Wragge. All three players have been solid in role-playing positions, but it’s uncertain how they would handle being pressed into go-to roles.
Improving center Will Artino and guard Avery Dingman also return, as do guards Nevin Johnson and Andre Yates, both of whom saw limited action this season. Little-used center Geoff Groselle will be asked to begin contributing with Echenique moving on, while guard Isaiah Zierden, who redshirted this season, will get a chance.
“I’m proud of what we were able to do these past two seasons,” Greg McDermott said. “The bar has been set. We have a good group of players coming back, and we have some good players coming in.”
McDermott will meet with the returning players in the coming days to set expectations, both from a team and individual standpoint, for next season. Those meetings always raise the possibility that a player or two, perhaps not liking what he hears from the coach, could decide to explore other options.
Creighton signed three high school players — Toby Hegner of Berlin, Wis.; Zach Hanson of Pierre, S.D., and Darian Harris of Springdale, Ark. — last November. Hanson and Hegner are big men that could be asked to fill in immediately, while Harris is a 6-foot-6 wing player.
The Bluejays could sign another player, possibly from the junior college ranks, this spring regardless of whether Doug McDermott returns. If he does, his father could free up a scholarship by paying for his son’s educational costs, which would make Doug McDermott perhaps the most decorated walk-on in college basketball history.
Regardless of how the roster issues shake out in the coming weeks, Creighton’s returning players are well aware of the challenge they’ll face in transitioning to the new conference.
The players said the experience gained in their second straight NCAA tournament appearance could serve them well as they prepare for next season. Creighton defeated Cincinnati, which is a member of the old Big East, in the second round before losing to Duke.
“I think these two games showed us how hard and how athletic the teams are that we’re going to be playing,” Wragge said. “They were getting up and denying us. It showed us the physicality and strength we’re going to be going up against next season.
“We know we’re going to have to hit the weights hard this summer.”
Greg McDermott agrees.
“We have to get bigger, stronger and faster,” he said. “We witnessed how good Cincinnati was, and they were a .500 team in the Big East. They were a good basketball team, and we’re going to be going against teams like that all the time next year.
“I think this experience gave us the opportunity to understand that we can compete at that level, but we have to improve.”
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