Toby Hegner, James Milliken and Darian Harris can at least see it, that light at the end of the tunnel that will signal the end to their redshirt seasons at Creighton.
The three have been practicing since the end of September. Since making the decisions to redshirt in early November, they have been participating in four-times-a-week lifting sessions separate from the team. Their efforts have come without the reward of playing time.
“It's a long time to go without games when all you're doing is workouts and scout teams,” coach Greg McDermott said. “The key is that they've all made some progress.”
Depending on how deep Creighton plays into this season, the three are still about two months away from when the focus will shift to preparing for the 2014-15 season.
“A lot of people see it as a never-ending thing,” said Hegner, referring to the redshirt process. “I just know that I have to keep pushing and the end will be here sooner than later.”
All three say they are holding up well to the grind of running the plays of the Bluejays' opponents with the scout team during practices. Hegner, a 6-foot-9 freshman from Berlin, Wis., often finds himself going up against two-time All-American Doug McDermott or chasing a floor-stretching shooting machine in Ethan Wragge.
Part of a redshirt season, Greg McDermott said, is building confidence that will be valuable when it's that player's time to contribute.
“It's not easy to guard Doug and Ethan every day,” the coach said. He paused, chuckled and added, “That's not great for a guy's confidence.”
Hegner's confidence does continue to grow in his shooting after the coaches reworked his mechanics early in the season. In high school, Hegner would bring his jump shot back to his forehead. Now, he keeps it more in front of him.
“It's more consistent now than it ever was,” he said. “I get it off a lot quicker so I'll be able to shoot it a lot quicker next year.”
Hegner, who scored more than 1,200 points and grabbed 500 rebounds in high school, is being counted on to fill some of the void that will be left by the departure of McDermott and Wragge.
The Bluejays will look to Milliken, who came to Creighton from Cowley County (Kan.) Community College, for help on the perimeter as they lose Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat. Milliken's offensive skills — he finished his junior college career sixth all-time at Cowley County with 1,150 points — caught the eye of the Creighton staff during the recruiting process.
But Gibbs' unexpected return with a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA created a personnel logjam at the shooting guard and small forward spots. Milliken came out of preseason practice looking at an immediate future that would have seen him playing limited minutes this season.
“Coach told me he was having trouble making a decision on whether I should redshirt or not,” Milliken said. “He told me where I stood and left it up to me. He told me that there were things he liked about what I was doing on the court and there were things he thought I could improve on.
“With Grant coming back, I just felt like redshirting would give me a year to get better. I let him know before the first game that I was cool with it.”
The 6-2 Milliken shot 42 percent from 3-point range as a junior-college sophomore. That part of his game will be dearly needed next season with the departure of Doug McDermott, Wragge and Manigat, the team's three most productive perimeter scorers.
Milliken also has shown he can get the ball to the hoop.
“I'm just trying to stay confident,” he said. “I'm shooting the ball well and I'm scoring it. I think I've gotten a ton better defensively.”
Harris' development has been slowed at times by a broken finger and a sprained ankle. He also had some issues with migraine headaches.
“It was kind of bringing me down, but then things started getting better,” Harris said. “I was like, 'OK, it's time to push through,' and that's kind of where I'm at right now.”
The 6-6 Harris was a high scorer at a smaller high school in northwest Arkansas. His biggest need was to fill some deficiencies on the defensive end.
“Before I got here, I really didn't have to play defense except when I really had to,” said Harris, who is from Springdale, Ark. “Now, I'm focusing on staying locked in on every single possession.
“I'm also working on getting tougher and not letting guys push me around. That's going to be a big help in the Big East.”
Though Harris and Hegner committed to Creighton when the school was still a part of the Missouri Valley, Greg McDermott said the two freshmen are making progress in proving that they could contribute in the Bluejays' new league. So is Milliken.
“We've kind of retooled Toby's shot, and we're pleased with the direction that's moving,” the coach said. “James is much better offensively. Having to play some of our better guards has forced him to get out of his shell on the offensive end of the floor.
“Darian, coming from a small school, is just experiencing this level of competition for the first time. It's taken him a while but he's making improvement.”
The on-court development is just part of the process for the three redshirts. Dan Bailey, Creighton's strength and conditioning coach, said the three players were not unlike most first-year players when they entered the program.
“Most players have limited experience with lifting weights because it's really not reinforced that much,” Bailey said. “They're all making progress, and I'm pleased with what I'm seeing.”
Hegner has added about 10 pounds since joining the program and now weighs 230. Bailey said one of his priorities is “leaning up” in order to increase his quickness while maintaining that weight.
Harris has added almost 20 pounds to the 180 he played at as a high school senior. He had been on a 5,000-calorie-a-day regimen but has increased that to between 5,250 and 5,500 since the first of the year.
One of the challenges Milliken has is that he'll turn 21 Friday. His body is more mature than the two freshmen's, which Bailey said sometimes hinders the dramatic gains that the younger players reach.
“We've worked a lot with James on his flexibility,” Bailey said, “but he's more of a finished product now than the other two.”
The three were tested last summer when they joined the program. The emphasis in the weight room for them is working on areas of weakness. That's why Bailey has them lift separate from the rest of the players, who are focused on maintaining strength to withstand the rigors of the season.
“The redshirts understand that development is everything at this point,” Bailey said. “Without it, their chances of ever contributing are slim. They see what the upperclassmen are doing on the court and understand those guys did the same kind of work.
“That's tough for those guys, but they understand down the road the redshirt year is going to pay off.”
There are moments, though, that are more difficult than others. Milliken said he had a rough time back in November when Creighton played its first game.
“I've never been around an environment like this,” Milliken said. “That first game, the ego gets going a little bit, and you want to be out there. But this is something I know I have to go through to have a chance to be successful.”
Hegner said he struggled on New Year's Eve, when Creighton played its first Big East game against Marquette. Harris, too, had trouble keeping the emotions in check that night but his roughest moment might have come about two weeks ago when Creighton won at Villanova.
Space restrictions on Creighton's chartered flights sometimes allow only two of the three redshirts to travel to away games. Harris had to remain home for that trip, and watched the victory against the then-No. 4 Wildcats at his dorm with some of the team's walk-ons.
“I was like, 'Man, I wish I could be out there because it was such an amazing game,'” Harris said. “It would have been amazing to be a part of that.”
For now, he, Hegner and Milliken know they just have to bide their time.
“We've all gotten better,” Hegner said. “We know this is going to be worth it.”